ELON Musk’s policy change on X on state-affiliated labels has led to a significant increase in engagement for Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state-run media accounts, raising concerns about the spread of unchecked propaganda and disinformation on the platform.
This is contained in the NewsGuard’s misinformation monitor report for September 2023.
According to the report, prior to April 20, 2023, X users used to be notified when an account was linked to a state-affiliated source.
However, Musk removed these labels, allowing state-sponsored propaganda to spread unchecked content on the platform.
Based on an analysis conducted by NewsGuard, which utilized data from Meltwater, there was a 70 per cent increase in engagement, as indicated by the number of likes and shares, observed on posts from English language accounts of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state-run media during the 90 days that followed the removal of state-sponsored labels on X, in contrast to the prior 90-day timeframe.
This surge in engagement raised concerns about foreign actors reaching a potentially more susceptible audience without users being aware of the propagandistic nature of these sources.
“Russia’s RT gained the most engagement after X users no longer had access to the information that the outlet — which changed its name from the more transparent Russia Today several years ago — is operated by the government of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. It nearly doubled its engagement, to 2.5 million likes and reposts from 1.3 million, after the removal of the disclosure. Following the change in X policy, Russia’s TASS grew engagement by 63 per cent, Iran’s PressTV by 97 per cent, and China’s Global Times by 26 per cent,” the report noted.
According to the report, these state-run disinformation sources managed to increase their engagement despite posting a similar number of times as before. Three months after the policy change, these accounts collectively garnered 4.98 million likes and reposts on 63,108 posts, compared to 2.93 million interactions on 62,551 posts in the preceding 90-day period.
The report noted that the policy change, X, was used to alert users about an account’s government ties on the profile page and within posts.
Additionally, posts containing links to state-run media articles were labelled with an orange exclamation point, urging users to “Stay Informed.” However, this transparency was eliminated, making it difficult for users to discern whether an account was government-affiliated.
According to the report, none of the 12 state-run X accounts analyzed disclosed their government affiliation in their profiles. This lack of transparency raised concerns about the potential spread of disinformation.
The removal of labels was not the sole change benefiting state-affiliated accounts. X’s algorithm started promoting content from these sources to users, a practice that was restricted until early 2023. This algorithmic promotion, combined with the policy change, amplified the reach of state-sponsored propaganda.
Part of the report reads, “From August 2020 until early 2023, X (then Twitter) prevented state-affiliated accounts from being boosted, saying it would not “amplify state-affiliated media accounts or their Tweets through our recommendation systems including on the home timeline, notifications, and search.”
However, press reports have documented how state-run media accounts are now regularly algorithmically recommended on users’ “For You” feeds. These pages, according to the platform on March 31, 2023, feed users content based on a post’s engagement metrics and a user’s previous activity.
Despite the controversy surrounding Musk’s decision, accounts that had previously carried state-affiliation labels celebrated the policy change, highlighting the reduced safeguards on the platform.