Facebook to start labelling state-run media

Facebook has started labeling some content as coming from foreign state-controlled media outlets, the company announced Thursday.
Image: An attendee takes a photograph of a sign during Facebook Inc's F8 developers conference in San Jose, California
An attendee takes a photograph of a sign during Facebook Inc's F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif., on April 30, 2019.Stephen Lam / Reuters file

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By Kevin Collier

Facebook has started labeling some content as coming from foreign state-controlled media outlets, the company announced Thursday.

Pages of overtly state-run news agencies such as Russia’s RT and Sputnik, and China’s Xinhua News and the People’s Daily, will be labeled as such, a Facebook representative said. At least 18 news outlets’ pages, with hundreds of millions of followers, will receive the label.

“It’s not just about funding,” Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, said. “It’s where can a government exert editorial control over the entity?”

The company will also begin labeling advertisements from those outlets, and in the coming months, block all their ads in the United States, though such ads historically are rare. The company is also considering labeling individual stories from those posts when they appear in someone’s timeline, but such a step isn’t on the immediate horizon, Gleicher said.

Social media companies, Facebook in particular, were resoundingly criticized for having few controls in place when Russia launched its multifaceted interference campaign in the 2016 election.

In assessing the aftermath of that election, U.S. intelligence agencies found RT and Sputnik “consistently cast President-elect [Donald] Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.” RT claimed to reach tens of millions of Americans daily, though it’s not clear how much influence the media outlets actually had over voters.

Lindsay Gorman, who tracks technology company policy on information operations for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a pro-Democracy think tank, said it’s important for Facebook to label overt state media. But she said the decision is too little, too late.

“This is a step that is long, long overdue and should have been taken in response to Russia's interference in 2016,” she said. “Is it helpful? Yes. But at this point, it's a drop in the bucket.”

While Facebook is still working to address foreign interference ahead of the 2020 presidential election, it’s also struggling with how to deal with abuse from domestic actors. On Tuesday, it suspended accounts of white nationalists attempting to stoke violence by posing as antifascist protesters.

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has refused to label remarks by Trump encouraging violence against the protesters, prompting a virtual walkout from some employees.