Labelling the ABC on Twitter: how Elon Musk got it wrong

Labelling the ABC on Twitter: how Elon Musk got it wrong

Elon Musk’s recent attempt to label the ABC as government-funded media has exposed misunderstanding about the role public media organisations play in a democracy. ABC Friends President Cassandra Parkinson discusses the recent controversy which led to a backdown by the Twitter owner.

Elon Musk looks puzzled and a big twitter blue tick

In 2020, in response to concerns about the spread of misinformation on social media, Twitter labelled state-controlled media organisations and their staff as 'state-affiliated media'. Twitter described these organisations as "where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, political pressure or control over production and distribution". Thus, for example, Rossiya 1, the Russian state-owned national network was labelled 'Russia state-affiliated media'. 

However, publicly funded news organisations with editorial independence such as the ABC and BBC were not labelled because Twitter recognised that they are editorially independent of government.

After Elon Musk purchased Twitter in 2022, things began to change and he revised the labels for media organisations. First cab off the rank was the USA’s National Public Radio (NPR) which was labelled as 'state-affiliated media'. Musk wrongly equated the independent broadcaster with propaganda outlets in Russia, China and other autocratic countries.

After an outcry, Musk changed the NPR's label to 'government-funded media'. But NPR said the label was inaccurate and misleading because NPR is a private, non-profit company that receives less than 1 percent of its budget from government - and it has editorial independence. 

NPR chose to go silent on Twitter to protect its credibility and its ability to produce journalism without "a shadow of negativity."

"I would never have our content go anywhere that would risk our credibility," NPR CEO John Lansing said.

When Musk decided to label our own ABC News as government-funded media, ABC Friends was deeply concerned. Twitter defines government-funded media as outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet's funding. It also states that government may have varying degrees of involvement over editorial content.

Twitter argued that its labels were meant to provide additional context for accounts heavily engaged in geopolitics and diplomacy, but the ABC was unimpressed. "We’re liaising with Twitter regarding changes to account verification and labels," an ABC spokesperson said.

For many people, 'government funded' implies government control. ABC Friends considered that the alternative label 'publicly funded' which was applied to the BBC, was more accurate (but not perfect).

Regardless of whether funding comes directly from government or via licence fees as with the BBC, the issue is one of independence. Despite what some might think, the Australian government has no control over editorial decisions at the ABC. The Charter under which the ABC was established specifically states that the Corporation is the provider of an independent national broadcasting service. Its board has a duty to "maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation".

Stephen McDonell, the China-based journalist for the BBC (and formerly ABC) put it well when he said:

The issue is control. China’s state media is completely controlled by the Communist Party. Is it ever able to publish material critical of the government? No. Does the BBC publish such material? All the time.

In fact politicians often hate organisations like the ABC or the BBC because they expose government mistakes and corruption. This is not the case with China’s Party-controlled media. 

The reason the BBC or the ABC exist is to have some media which is outside the control of business interests. The reason Party-controlled television exists in China is to deliver government propaganda to the people (who the Party does not trust with unfiltered information).

Ultimately, it all got too hard for Twitter which was besieged by complaints. Musk quietly dropped all labels for media (including state-controlled media).

The episode called into question decision-making at Twitter. 

It also exposed misunderstanding about the role that public media organisations play in a democracy. They are not organs of the state. The ABC is an independent media organisation, free from political and commercial interests.

This goes to the heart of what the ABC is. It's why ABC Friends is so committed to fighting to retain a truly independent public media organisation.