YouTube's decision to flag state-backed media is the latest example of Silicon Valley's struggle to contend with the spread of disinformation across social media, a tactic exploited by foreign operatives during and after the 2016 presidential election. It also highlights the increasing challenges giant communications platforms face as they assume regulatory responsibilities in facilitating and policing the global public square.
“News is an important and growing vertical for us, and we want to be sure to get it right, helping to grow news and support news publishers on YouTube in a responsible way,” Geoff Samek, senior product manager for YouTube News, said in a blog post. “This work follows a series of changes we made throughout 2017 to better surface authoritative news content.”
But PBS, a U.S. public broadcaster, says YouTube's decision is misguided. “Labeling PBS a 'publicly funded broadcaster' is both vague and misleading,” a spokesman told The Washington Post in a statement. “PBS and its member stations receive a small percentage of funding from the federal government; the majority of funding comes from private donations. More importantly, PBS is an independent, private, not-for-profit corporation, not a state broadcaster. YouTube’s proposed labeling could wrongly imply that the government has influence over PBS content, which is prohibited by statute. If YouTube's intent is to create clarity and better understanding, this is a step in the wrong direction.”
PBS added that it continues to discuss the issue with YouTube.
When asked to address the criticism leveled by PBS and to offer further details, Google, YouTube's parent company, referred The Post back to Samek's blog post.
“We’re rolling out this feature to viewers in the U.S. for now, and we don’t expect it to be perfect,” YouTube's Samek wrote. “We plan to improve and expand the feature over time.”
YouTube did not disclose a list of posters affected by the new labels. But in the blog post, the company included an example of a flagged video from Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit news organization funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. government agency, whose stated mission is "to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy." The sample notice on the YouTube video stated "RFA is funded in whole or in part by the American government.”
The notices will appear below the video but above the video’s title, YouTube said; the label also will include a link to the publisher's Wikipedia page. On a Web page offering additional details about the labels, YouTube said that the notice is “not a comment by YouTube on the publisher's or video's editorial direction or a government’s editorial influence.” The state-funded labels will not be displayed in YouTube search results, and they will not affect any video features or change the criteria for enabling advertisements on videos, YouTube said.
Following YouTube's latest announcement on state media notices, RT said in a statement, "Congratulations to YouTube on labeling our content with the basic info we’ve always made known."
YouTube's move arrives as Facebook, Twitter and Google were attacked by lawmakers for not doing enough to prevent foreign meddling on their networks during the election. In contentious congressional hearings last year, members of Congress also pressed Google on its relationship with the Russian-backed news outlet RT, formerly known as Russia Today, which the U.S. intelligence community had concluded is a propaganda platform for Moscow. RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In November, Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google's parent, Alphabet, said that the company would de-rank RT and another Russian government-affiliated news outlet, Sputnik, in its search results in an effort to curb misleading and exploitative content. Schmidt added that the company does not want to ban the outlets, and Google later clarified that the company does not re-rank individual websites.
Google is not the only tech giant to have taken action against Russian-affiliated media. In October, Twitter banned RT and Sputnik from advertising on its platform, citing the U.S. intelligence assessment.
The thorny issue over state-backed media playing out on tech platforms is part of a broader conflict between the U.S. and Russian governments. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law new measures that will allow authorities to force any foreign media organization to register as a “foreign agent.” The policy, enacted in retaliation after RT was forced to register under a similar statute in the United States, could entangle U.S. news bureaus abroad and may lead Moscow to enact further censorship rules.