Addressing Media Capture
For years, industry, governments, and civil society have grappled with how to address the potential harm from state media while protecting people’s right to information in the digital domain. In some cases, the harm from state media can be significant. State media outlets have published stories that spread conspiracy theories, deny human rights abuses, and exacerbate political divides. Because internet platforms enable these outlets to grow their audiences—including among those unaware of the government’s influence on their content—some favor restricting state media online. But such restrictions can also be harmful. They can infringe on peoples’ right to information as well as limit their ability to access news about local developments that directly affect their daily lives.
In this piece, we use Meta’s experience as a global platform to offer a framework for navigating the trade-offs inherent to developing policies on state media. Any policy on state media will need to answer two fundamental questions. The first is designation: How should platforms define state media, and which outlets qualify? The second question is treatment: What actions should platforms take to balance the potential harm these outlets can pose against the risks of over-enforcement? Additionally, as learned after the invasion of Ukraine, platforms should also consider a third question: How should they adapt their approaches during and after major civic and geopolitical crises, if at all?
To answer these questions, we consulted more than 100 experts around the world specializing in media development, press freedom, human rights, and governance—including Reporters Without Borders, the Center for International Media Assistance, UNESCO, the Global Forum for Media Development, the Media and Journalism Research Center, and others. These experts noted that—with clear exceptions—stories published by state media are not often individually harmful. Some articles contain important information, such as that related to the provision of government services. However, in the context of the increased attacks on press freedom globally and in online environments where people may engage with content without knowledge of its full context, these outlets can have an outsized impact on public opinion in favor of government positions and diminish accountability for corruption or policy failures. They also noted that the offline harm from biased or misleading information can be especially high in times of crisis.
This feedback, especially when balanced against the costs of over-enforcement, informed Meta’s decision to use a transparency-first approach for state media. It labels publishers it believes are wholly or partially under the editorial control of a government. To address the increased risks of harm in light of the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Meta has taken additional steps that significantly limited the reach of Russian state-controlled media on Facebook and Instagram, including demoting their content in users’ feeds and building new product “nudges” to ask users to confirm that they seek to share content from a state media outlet. Meta is not alone in its attempt to mitigate harms posed by state media outlets on social media. Other platforms, including Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, have developed their own approaches to state media as well.
The lessons learned from our consultations underscore why policies on state media need to be nuanced—regardless of different platforms’ varying approaches to these issues. By sharing how these consultations shaped Meta’s policies, we hope to foster a candid conversation about the trade-offs inherent to policymaking in this area and enable stakeholders across society to collectively strengthen the approaches to mitigating harm.
The Designation Challenge: How to Define State Media
At its core, the defining feature of state media is that governments may use their influence over outlets to advance their political agenda at the expense of the wider public interest. Free media, conversely, serve a crucial role in holding governments accountable, including by exposing instances of government misconduct and covering diverse viewpoints in debates about policies. A key learning from our expert consultations is that media capture—where governments and other powerful interest groups directly or indirectly control media—is better understood as a spectrum. In other words, state control over an outlet can vary in its intensity, so setting a specific threshold to qualify something as state media necessarily comes with trade-offs.
How then should platforms identify state media? Borrowing from statistics, there are two principles that platforms can use to judge the criteria they develop. First, the criteria should be valid, meaning that they should collectively reflect outlets where a government exercises control over their editorial line and not outlets that are independent. Second, the criteria should be reliable, meaning that they should yield the same classification even if different people evaluate the evidence. The latter is especially important for global platforms that need to consistently and objectively designate state media across different countries and contexts. As many experts have emphasized, the costs of getting these designations wrong are high: It can undermine independent journalism and even threaten the safety of journalists working at these outlets.
A common criterion used to identify state media is funding. Historically, governments have used funding as a primary mechanism to keep outlets in line by rewarding pro-government coverage and punishing critical reporting. For example, in a study of major newspapers in Argentina from 1998 to 2007, researchers found that newspapers that received more money from government advertising were less likely to publish stories covering instances of government corruption than newspapers that received less funding from such advertising, regardless of the administration in power. Outside of state advertising, governments can use budget allocations to directly fund state-owned outlets or reward friendly outlets with subsidies.
Focusing solely on funding is appealing to platforms because of its reliability: It does not require them to exercise independent judgment beyond setting a threshold for the amount of government funding required to trigger designation.
But in the absence of other criteria to assess editorial independence, funding sacrifices validity because publicly funded outlets can take steps to preserve their autonomy. Public service media, such as NPR and the BBC, rely on government funding to varying degrees but use different approaches to shield themselves from government interference. Not only are different funding models more or less susceptible to media capture, but outlets can establish firewalls between themselves and their funders, create independent boards to enforce transparent editorial guidelines, and more. Several studies show that because public service media retain editorial independence, they play an important role in increasing government accountability—much like media without government funding. In fact, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher became so frustrated by the BBC’s coverage of her administration that she launched a sweeping (but unsuccessful) review to “knock the BBC down to size.”
Governments have also grown more sophisticated in the ways they exert influence over the media. They can capture media regulatory bodies through political appointees, limit access to broadcast infrastructure, abuse state resources to distort the media market in favor of pro-government media, create a circle of loyalists who run private media outlets that support government interests, and intimidate journalists who fail to advance state objectives.
Given these diverse tactics, a different approach to identifying state media is to inspect whether its content is unduly biased in favor of governments. This approach, however, compromises both validity and reliability. First, it can be difficult to detect bias in state media outlets that maintain a neutral tone to give the appearance of objectivity but that self-censor to protect government interests. Second, outlets without any connection to the state can publish stories in favor of the government interests because they share similar ideologies or due to other journalistic practices. For example, because news media tend to cover the contours of elite debate, even independent news coverage reflects the government’s consensus on issues where there is little debate between different political parties. Third, this approach may allow individual reviewers’ personal biases toward certain governments to influence their assessment of whether an outlet is “too biased” toward government interests.
Meta’s Policy Criteria
With the above issues in mind, Meta defines “state-controlled media” as “any outlet that is wholly or partially under the editorial control of the state.” To make these assessments holistically, Meta relies on evidence of structural mechanisms through which governments can exercise influence. This includes evidence of direct ties to government, such as whether an outlet is owned by state institutions or state-run companies or whether their governing bodies consist of people appointed by government authorities. Notably, it also includes evidence of indirect ties, such as whether newsroom leadership share affiliations with the government—there’s an increasing trend of regimes outsourcing ownership to “puppet owners” to obscure the intensity of their influence. Meta also looks for evidence of governance mechanisms by which outlets can preserve their independence.
Specifically, Meta uses several factors raised in expert consultations to assess editorial control, including:
- Mission statement, mandate, and/or public reporting on how the organization defines and accomplishes its journalistic mission.
- Ownership structure such as information on owners, shareholders, board members, management, government appointees in leadership positions, and disclosure of direct or indirect ownership by entities or individuals holding elected office.
- Editorial guidelines such as transparency about sources of content and independence and diversity of sources.
- Information about newsroom leadership and staff.
- Sources of funding and revenue.
- Governance and accountability mechanisms that protect editorial independence, such as correctional policies, procedures for complaints, external assessments, or oversight boards.
Meta also considers country-specific factors, such as levels of press freedom, and references open-source data, including research conducted by academics and leading experts.
Practically, there are a number of other considerations platforms should take into account when deciding how to designate state media, including how often they should revisit their assessments and how they plan to address outlets that believe they have been designated inappropriately. The extent of a government’s control over an outlet is not a static feature; independent outlets can be drawn into the orbit of the government over time, while others can become more independent as governments change hands or establish new editorial firewalls. Moreover, outlets vary in the level of transparency they provide about the criteria described above, and tech platforms most often do not have full visibility into the types of evidence needed to assess editorial control and independence. This challenge makes it important for platforms to create an appeals system, so that outlets can challenge the designations by submitting additional documentation for policy teams to review against their criteria.
The Treatment Challenge: What Actions to Take Against State Media on Online Platforms
Once platforms have developed their state media definitions and criteria, the next step is to determine the appropriate actions to take against these entities. At Meta, we focused on two core issues: (a) the risks posed to the integrity of public debate by state media and (b) the risks associated with over-enforcing against these entities. While press freedom experts expressed concerns about how some state media can distort the information environment, they emphasized the importance of not conflating all state media with the worst offenders. They also stressed that many users around the world rely on state media for critical information, given the absence of independent alternatives in some cases.
What Integrity Risks Do State Media Pose?
State media are an important vehicle for government-run influence operations that target both foreign and domestic audiences. Influence operations manifest in different forms—from covert campaigns that rely on fake identities and accounts, to overt efforts that use authentic and influential voices to promote messages that may or may not be false. In its work on covert influence operations, Meta has removed operations that amplified state media stories and instances where state media have publicized content that originated with covert campaigns. For example, in July 2021, some Chinese state media outlets referenced posts made on Facebook that claimed the United States politicized the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. But the account that posted these allegations did not belong to a real person. Instead, it was part of a “multi-pronged, largely unsuccessful influence operation.”
Several studies show that exposure to state media can have a discernible impact on public opinion. In some cases, the harm from state media is immediate and clear. There have been stories published by state media that spread conspiracy theories, deny human rights abuses, and undermine confidence in coronavirus vaccines.
But often, the way state media influences public opinion is subtle and not immediately harmful. Outlets might selectively cover criticism of the government but avoid reporting on topics that could spur protests. They might acknowledge government failures such as poor economic performance but blame these outcomes on external factors. Or they might simply devote disproportionate coverage to topics that portray the government positively or in ways that undermine political rivals. In this way, the tactics that state media outlets have at their disposal to influence public opinion are similar to the framing and agenda setting powers of any media organization.
It is also important to acknowledge that content from state media is not universally “bad” or propagandistic. State media vary in the degree of bias in favor of state interests, and governments use these outlets to share important information about upcoming legislation, such as that related to provision of government services, and emergency notifications. Research has also shown that in China, newspapers with less autonomy from Chinese Communist Party committees are more likely to report on instances of government corruption than newspapers owned at the local level that have more autonomy in their decision-making. This is true even though these newspapers produce content more favorable to government interests overall.
Because the stories that state media publish are not necessarily individually harmful, media capture experts emphasized the need to understand countries’ larger media environments and how news is consumed online to understand the integrity risks these outlets pose. Even in markets where governments exercise strong influence over some outlets, competition with independent outlets can force captured media to provide coverage on new stories disadvantageous to the state. However, media freedom at large has been on the decline globally. In 2022, UNESCO found that 85 percent of the global population live in countries where press freedom has declined in the past five years.
These trends are further complicated on the internet, where people can consume content without full awareness of its surrounding context. Because users may not know who is behind an outlet’s editorial line, they might treat content from state media as if it came from a neutral source. In short, users in online environments may lack the information needed to make informed judgments about the trustworthiness of the content they’re seeing or the motivations behind it.
What Are the Risks of Over-Enforcing Against State Media?
As with any policy, platforms also need to consider the risks of over-enforcement. Here, press freedom and human rights experts cautioned that punitive actions—such as banning these entities entirely—risk infringing on users’ right to information, limiting audiences’ exposure to counter-speech and fact-checks, exacerbating “news deserts,” and lending legitimacy to efforts to censor political speech. Further, if platforms designate state media broadly, over-enforcement can have even higher costs.
First, banning or heavily restricting state media may impede a person’s ability to access information, which is an integral part of freedom of expression as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are many reasons why people seek out state media sources, including because some prefer the content these outlets produce and some trust government sources more.
Second, making it more difficult for people to access content from state media on social platforms can limit audiences’ exposure to counter-speech and other important context. This is not just because audiences can still consume state media on other forums. It is also because the people who would have otherwise contested government narratives or provided fact-checks will be less likely to see the content in the first place.
Third, in many countries, state media may be the only sources available that provide people with information about local developments that affect their lives. Several studies have shown vast inequality in reporting on countries outside the West, including by international news agencies and by internet news aggregators. Given this, scholars studying closed societies warned that making it difficult for people to find local news sources—even if they are not independent—can leave them uninformed and ill equipped to participate in civic, social, and economic life.
Finally, over-enforcing against state media can provide cover for governments to further restrict the information environment through censorship. There are many examples where governments restricted the ability of foreign media outlets to operate within their countries and revoked the credentials of foreign journalists, largely to suppress voices that challenge their official narrative. Aggressively punishing state media can lend legitimacy to these efforts. For example, after the European Union banned Sputnik and RT, Russia cut access to public service outlets like the BBC and Deutsche Welle, citing “their deliberate and systematic circulations of materials containing false information.”
Meta’s Transparency Response
Meta developed a transparency-first approach to balance the integrity risks posed by state media outlets against the risks of over-enforcement. Social media plays an important role in connecting people with each other and with information they might not have encountered otherwise. While this enables users to discover content that brings them value and to build communities across the globe, it also means they may not have the context they need to engage with such content critically. Providing people with knowledge about whether a publication is under the influence of a government better equips them to make informed decisions about the news they consume.
Meta launched “state-controlled” media labels in June 2020 and displays them in a variety of places on Facebook and Instagram, including feed posts, Stories, Reels, and ads. When state media post content that violates Meta’s Community Standards, Meta also enforces on these content violations like it does for all other entities. For example, Meta places fact-checking labels on content from state media outlets that have been rated by independent, third-party fact-checkers as false or misleading.
Like any approach, labeling has its limitations. Research has shown that the effectiveness of labels depends on their design, and other industries that employ transparency measures frequently show people can experience “label fatigue.” When organizations apply too many labels—which often carry different meanings in different contexts—it can overload people with information and make it more likely that they ignore these additional contextual nudges.
There can also be unanticipated consequences of labeling state media: Some users who would have otherwise commented critically on content from state media choose not to consume it, lowering the presence of counter-speech in comment sections overall. Labels also do not prevent government propaganda from spreading via unaffiliated outlets—including ostensibly neutral ones. For example, research shows that Russian government narratives on the annexation of Crimea were circulated internationally by independent, Western news agencies and other popular online news sites.
Adapting Platform Policies During Times of Crisis
During times of crisis, social media can be a valuable tool for people to access information and make their voices heard. However, state media also has the potential to exacerbate the uncertainty around crises and contribute to a biased—or outright false—understanding of events. During these times, misleading or false information is particularly likely to have offline consequences. So, while Meta uses transparency as its default approach to state media, the right balance of action can shift in response to changing circumstances.
The Russian government’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is one example of this type of crisis. As the UN Special Rapporteur warned in a joint statement with other regional organizations, misleading propaganda from Russian state media could have an outsized impact on the war, especially when coupled with increased media censorship in Russia.
To mitigate the potential for harm, Meta developed a strategy to limit the reach of Russian state media on its platforms, particularly for people who might unintentionally encounter this content in their feeds. Specifically, Meta applied new global enforcements on Russian state media outlets across all languages in which they operate. It blocked Russian state media outlets from running ads, demonetized their pages and accounts, and demoted their content in users’ feeds. To provide even more transparency into these outlets, Meta launched new labels on posts that contain links to Russian state media websites, as well as new “nudges” that prompt users to confirm whether they want to share or navigate to off-platform content from these outlets. Importantly, these measures enable users who express specific and clear intent to find these outlets and view their content where it can be fact-checked and viewed alongside counter-speech.
While Meta also complied with government requests from the EU, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine to fully block some Russian state media outlets in their countries, we believe its global actions appropriately balance the risks of over-enforcement against the threat posed by Russian state media in times of war.
Research from Graphika shows that Russian state media reduced their posting on Facebook and Instagram by 43 percent after Meta implemented these interventions. Engagements with these outlets also dropped by 80 percent compared to the previous year. Other sources have found similar drops in engagement with Spanish-language Russian state media. These reductions in posting activity and engagement were observed globally, not just in places where Meta complied with additional government restrictions.
Some Russian state media have attempted to circumvent Meta’s enforcement by creating new domains to evade the additional transparency on, and demotions against, outbound links to their websites. Others have invited audiences to follow them on different platforms, particularly Telegram. But these attempts have been relatively infrequent. Unlike covert operations where operators can cycle through a high-volume of disposable assets, state media is not suited for rapid attempts to gather attention. State media’s advantage lies in their ability to build their brand and grow their audiences over a sustained period of time, which makes it difficult for them to adapt quickly to platform enforcements.
Addressing state media requires balancing a set of trade-offs. At the core of this challenge is safeguarding democratic principles and people’s “right to seek, receive, and impart information through any media” against mitigating the broader risks posed by government propaganda.
Meta developed a transparency-first approach to balance the integrity risks posed by state media outlets against the risks of over-enforcement. While this means that users have more context about the content they are consuming, labeling content also has its limitations. Labels vary in their effectiveness, and government propaganda can still spread via unaffiliated channels.
The goal of this piece is not to justify a particular approach. Rather, this piece offers a framework explaining how Meta developed its state media policies to help foster a clear understanding of the problem and the key trade-offs from a global platform’s perspective. This can help set the foundation for deeper conversations among academics, industry, civil society, international organizations, and government to collectively develop effective strategies to address state media.