Labelling the Media on Twitter – Transparency or Stigmatisation?

Labelling media accounts “where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution” has been the most recent move made by Twitter, a privately-held American company. The latter has impacted 21 countries across the world, including Serbia and has therefore disrupted the public discourse in our country and shifted the attention onto issues which we, as a society, usually deal with. The first aspect of the issue is reflected in the justification of Twitter’s move, from the viewpoint of methodologies implemented when it comes to the selection of specific countries and media companies, the consequences it has on those who are labelled, the effects it has on the users, as well as the real motivations to do so. The second aspect of the issue is comprised of the Serbian government’s inadequate interpretation of Twitter’s move, the polarisation of media in the country in terms of “labelled” and “unlabelled” and a series of mutual disagreements regarding the acceptability of labels on Twitter.

The social network has explained the labelling, which in the case of specific Serbian media companies translates to “media cooperating with the Serbian government” (a fact visible on their official accounts), and provided additional context on profiles which it considers to be controlled by the executive. Even though rather obscure, this implies a kind of warning to readers regarding the unreliability of content published by these labelled accounts. Likewise, Twitter had anticipated the sanctioning of these accounts and in response it has stopped recommending these accounts as well as reducing the reach of tweets sent out from these accounts. Evidently, based on undertaken actions, a certain type of digital stigmatisation of the media is being carried out. In this case, Twitter acts to warn and direct the users towards the “unlabelled”, as they are the ones who publish credible content.

However, when the question of whether or not Twitter can undertake such an action is raised – the answer is yes. Considering that Twitter is a privately-held platform, users whose views do not align with Twitter’s are free to deactivate their accounts and stop using the platform altogether. On the other hand, it is clear that this would not be a significant blow to the company which averages 322.4 million active users each month. Some projections expect there to be 340.2 million worldwide users by the end of 2024. In addition, Twitter’s revenue for the second quarter of 2021 has been 1.190 million USD, whereas 2020’s yearly revenue totalled 3.7 billion USD. This data indicates that Twitter is one of the most powerful and influential platforms for expressing views, holding debates, connecting people and advertising products.

In this instance, power is an incentive which allows for accounts to be labelled without elaborate explanations of methodology that was considered. Twitter has credited Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, Economic Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, the European Journalism Centre’s Media Landscapes Report, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and UNESCO’s framework to assess media development and independence as sources on which it based this media targeting. Consultations led in cooperation with “numerous interested parties, such as academics and researchers, the civil society, government, expert organisations and those who use their services” fall under other credited sources. What is shown is a very generalised and obscure methodological foundation which was used for identification, and we cannot, therefore, determine the exact indicators which were used to come to this conclusion. The European Federation of Journalists also draws attention to the lack of methodology, warning that we are unaware of the criteria Twitter uses to assess the independence of media in relation to government pressure. The Federation urges Twitter to be transparent in their assessment and to implement a new transparency policy which will take into account more than just “state-affiliated media”. What we can, therefore, observe are two primary flaws – a scarcity of indicators and criteria on which the label is based on and the selective application of the transparency policy.

The consequences of Twitter’s new labels are an important issue that needs to be discussed. The content of labelled media on Twitter is thus qualitatively assessed and believed to be debatable from the start. This creates unfair conditions of competition on the platform. Twitter warns media that it will not recommend their accounts nor increase the reach of tweets they send out; a treatment which is otherwise enjoyed by all the “unlabelled” accounts. The effects of this assume that the “labelled” will have less views and less readers which contributes to less influence (especially when it comes to international readers which hope to familiarise themselves with a specific country’s political and social scene by means of Twitter). Although Twitter’s move is formally portrayed as educational and awareness-raising for its relationship with the users, we can assume that there are certain concealed intentions. The latter includes placing pressure on the government and media company which they are associated with and which are considered to promote values and beliefs contrary to the framework of beliefs and attitudes envisioned by the company.

As Serbia has been placed under the category of “labelled” countries, certain tensions between journalists of “labelled” and “unlabelled” media companies have arisen. Twitter’s move seems to be just one of the triggers for the dissolution and accusations on both sides to occur, especially in terms of pro-regime and anti-regime categorisations. In this sense, media representatives not hit by Twitter’s list justify this move, while the “labelled” media accuses the “unlabelled” on the grounds of funding sources (which had not been brought up by Twitter). It is clear there is no singular media response from the Serbian media that is based on an objective view of the situation, without it including the already understood contradictions of the media’s commitment to the ruling class in the country.

The government’s reactions further contributed to an already tense atmosphere. The Ministry of Culture and Information has argued that Twitter’s move should be understood as media censorship, emphasizing how much this decision took them by surprise. Contrary to this rather moderate reaction from the Ministry, the President of Serbia characterised this move as praise for those who associate themselves with the Serbian government and not with the “tycoons and thieves”. In this instance, this situation is used for political point scoring as it promotes the already understood polarisations in society. When responding to Twitter’s criticism, the specific circumstances and the extremely subjective interfering of the executive puts the “labelled” media into an all the more unenviable position. The public support they receive from the executive in a given case can be perceived to have the effect of justifying “their media” (i.e., the government’s).

In sum, Twitter’s recent move does not have an adequate methodological foundation, it negatively influences the competition policy on the platform and raises the question as to what the motives for such measures are. Reactions which were caused in Serbia prove that the already determined divisions in the country are maintained and one cannot, therefore, expect a united reaction of the Serbian media. Similarly, taking into account the power which Twitter enjoys (both in terms of the number of users and accumulated revenue), it is possible these measures will be further tightened. The possibility of additionally tightening this new labelling policy in the future, despite the fact that it can be described more as stigmatisation than transparency, should not be disregarded.