Christopher Benítez Cuartas
Twitter, like all fora on the internet, reflects the hellscape our world is. The spar between the BBC and NPR, or CBC and Twitter, would have been considered unthinkable a decade ago. However, polarization has spurred this inevitable row, and the tech companies have no clue how to address the situation other than to pour gasoline on the fire.
The key takeaway is that ideology—not the state’s control over the media—is causing panic and finger-pointing on the right. This type of attrition was not present during the Trump administration here in the U.S., as the executive itself was at odds with the media in general, not a segment of the public radicalized post-fact. NPR and the CBC are singled out for being funded by governments that happen to be left-wing for the term.
Appallingly, Twitter relies on—at least according to their “Help” page on the subject—Wikipedia to determine what outlets are state-funded or not. This type of structure is inappropriate for a company that has both recognized itself and been recognized as fundamental for the full operation of news media and the flow of ideas. Wikipedia is known to have ideological disputes within its crew of prominent editors. It is almost a purposeful blur between public and state media for the sake of appeasing ideologues and a slap in the face to all journalists and employees of these organizations.
This is where things can change: Platforms should adopt a multi-metric system to determine media outlets’ nature. Once an outlet—public or private—establishes notoriety, the platform should add a label to its account with its ideological leanings as per a third party. This way, readers will know exactly what they’re getting, bigger outlets can be held more accountable, and the platforms could help spread awareness of the media rating companies. Despite their work being desperately needed today, they often lack much exposure to the general public.
This being said, the platforms should not go so far as to give individual users the option to filter out perspectives. This is why the follow and unfollow buttons exist, after all. These proposals would only be corollaries to existing mechanisms for media monitoring and are designed to inform the user of any context they may need to understand an article as a piece of media, as opposed to the automatic assumption of accuracy we’ve given major outlets over the years.
Of course, we cannot forget the original targets of the infamous Twitter labels: the mouthpieces of authoritarian regimes. Even if Wikipedia has one, there is no list of regimes from around the world. Two well-positioned left and right-wing people will not necessarily agree on whether Hungary or Venezuela are in fact dictatorships or not. Democratic backsliding exists, and press freedom situations can change overnight.
For this, platforms can rely on the Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters Without Borders, or RSF. The RSF’s Index is wide-encompassing and analyzes not only explicit state control, but private actors as well. The stake private players and businesses have in the media landscape of the country can be studied through their links to either the ruling party or the opposition. Countries to be put under scrutiny by this metric would have to fail to reach the “Satisfactory” level of press freedom. State media from these places can and should be labeled, while opposition-affiliated media would be reclassified under the original left-center-right spectrum.
Now, the platforms themselves have come under criticism from both left and right-wing commentators for their own biases in the algorithms. The implementation of this rating system is a golden chance for the platforms to save face and show it cares about their role as disseminators of information and ideas.
The internet’s top portals were never meant to be public institutions, but they are meant to be self-regulatory. If there is one way to avoid major public broadcasters from going dark on them, it is to be honest about who they are and what content they release. Only then will Twitter and its fellow portals be faithful to their role in modern reporting.