More newsrooms bail on Twitter as Musk meddles with account labels

PBS and a handful of other news organizations have joined NPR in stepping away from Twitter, the social media platform once synonymous with breaking news.

A PBS spokesperson confirmed to Axios that PBS had “no plans to resume tweeting” after Twitter gave it a murky “government-funded media” label over the weekend. A few other news entities appeared to have followed suit, including the prominent Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, Hawaii Public Radio and LA-based local news source LAist. As the fallout from Musk’s outburst against the media continues, that list is likely to grow.

NPR announced that it would leave the platform altogether last week after Twitter misleadingly attached a label reserved for state-run media entities to its account. Twitter has since adjusted NPR’s label from “state-affiliated media” — a designation for state propaganda accounts like the Kremlin-backed Russia Today — to “government-funded media,” a new label invented for the situation.

“At this point I have lost my faith in the decision-making at Twitter,” NPR CEO John Lansing said. “I would need some time to understand whether Twitter can be trusted again.”

On Twitter’s own website just before NPR was given the label, the platform defined the “state-affiliated media” label as “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content.” The description previously explicitly mentioned NPR and the BBC as examples of accounts the label would not apply to:

“State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy,” the policy read.

The new “government-funded media” label does little to hide the fact that Musk’s latest intervention further undermined the platform’s credibility by deliberately misleading users into believing that NPR’s editorial agenda is set by the U.S. government. The new label’s definition appears to intentionally muddy the waters, suggesting vaguely that these accounts have “varying” degrees of editorial independence:

Government-funded media is defined as outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet’s funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content. We may use external sources similar to this one in order to determine when this label is applied.

NPR derives a small portion of its funding from states and the federal government, but the organization is fully editorially independent and broadly one of the country’s most reliable news sources. But Musk’s meddling with the account was never meant to provide transparency about the company’s finances.

Like most decisions he’s made since taking over at the company, Musk’s decision to give NPR the label out of the blue wasn’t a choice made on any set of coherent policy principles, but another gesture of solidarity with his feverish fan base and the ideological echo chambers they spend time in. Musk has repeatedly attacked news organizations over their trustworthiness, even as he spread misinformation himself.

Days after purchasing Twitter, Musk himself spread a conspiracy theory that Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked by a sex worker he knew, not a stranger who intruded into his home. “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote in a reply to a tweet from Hillary Clinton on the topic, along with a link to a website notorious for spreading misinformation. In another instance, Musk instituted sweeping account bans on reporters who commented on his war against a bot tracking the whereabouts of his private jet. Musk has also called The New York Times and other prominent media outlets fake news.

Twitter has always been an essential source of breaking news, mixing traditional reporting from legacy media organizations with eyewitness reports on developing events the globe over. The exodus of news accounts from the platform makes it clear that whatever will become of Twitter in this new chapter, the platform is moving further away from the core utility of delivering trusted news in real time.