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Elon Musk labels NPR ‘state-affiliated’ as Twitter’s media war heats up

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Elon Musk escalated tensions with the media industry yet again this week when his social media service, Twitter, labeled nonprofit radio network NPR “U.S. state-affiliated media.” 

The label appeared on NPR’s Twitter page Tuesday evening, and it remains as of Wednesday afternoon. A Twitter policy change this week grouped NPR with state-affiliated media, defined as “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” 

With the change, NPR is now lumped in with Russia’s RT, China’s Xinhua, and Iran’s Press TV. Previously, Twitter’s policy referred to NPR and the U.K.’s BBC, which receives most of its funding from the U.K.’s TV license fees, as “state-financed media organizations with editorial independence” and explicitly stated that these outlets were “not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy.” This week’s policy change omits the reference to NPR as “state-financed media.”

While NPR contested the new label, Musk stoked the fire Wednesday morning by tersely tweeting about the designation: “seems accurate.” NPR is a favorite target of conservatives who accuse it of liberal bias and point to its government funding—although it receives only 1% of its support from federal programs—as reasons the outlet allegedly suppresses conservative viewpoints.

“We were disturbed to see last night that Twitter has labeled NPR as ‘state-affiliated media,’ a description that, per Twitter’s own guidelines, does not apply to NPR,” John Lansing, NPR’s CEO, said in a statement reported Wednesday by Isabel Lara, the outlet’s chief communications officers. “It is unacceptable for Twitter to label us this way.”

NPR contacted Twitter after it realized the label had been changed but has yet to hear back, a company spokesperson told Fortune. Twitter disbanded its media relations team in November and no longer replies to press inquiries.

Musk’s run-in with NPR is just the latest he’s had with a major U.S. news outlet. In a bid to reduce the company’s reliance on ads, Musk introduced subscriptions that give Twitter users who pay monthly a blue check mark that was once reserved only for high-profile users whose identities had been verified.

Starting April 15, only paid accounts will appear on Twitter’s For You feed that recommends posts. Many companies and several celebrities have said they will not pay for the extra visibility. Media outlets have joined the boycott as well, with the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times signaling last week that they do not plan to pay Twitter, either for their company or individual reporters.

Musk personally escalated tensions on Sunday, when Twitter stripped the Times of its blue check mark. In a tweet Sunday, Musk criticized the Times as “propaganda”—another conservative talking point—and having an “unreadable” feed. The outlet has reported extensively on Musk’s troubles at Twitter and product shortcomings with self-driving cars at Tesla, his electric car company. 

Twitter’s subscription model has raised concerns that it could open the door to more misinformation and fake accounts on the site. And considering Musk’s run-in with the Times and NPR’s designation as a state-affiliated outlet, experts warn that Twitter risks making labels useless that show user identities have been verified or that news is from reliable sources of information.

“Wow, way to make this label meaningless,” Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist with a research background in online disinformation, wrote on Wednesday. “This is ridiculous and only helps actual propaganda outlets blend in with legitimate news outlets.”

Wow, way to make this label meaningless. NPR is absolutely not even comparable to propaganda outlets like RT & Sputnik, which have no editorial independence. This is ridiculous and only helps actual propaganda outlets blend in with legitimate news outlets.

— Caroline Orr Bueno, Ph.D (@RVAwonk) April 5, 2023

In an article Wednesday, NPR said its switch to state-affiliated media happened without any prior warning from Twitter. NPR’s two main sources of revenue, accounting for 70% of its funding, are corporate sponsorships and fees paid by member organizations, according to NPR’s website.

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