YouTube is attempting to stem the ugly ooze of propaganda and conspiracy theories on its platform with what can be best described as a misleading Band-Aid.
On Friday, Google-owned YouTube announced it’s rolling out “notices” that inform users they’re watching a video from an organization that receives funding from a government.
“Our goal is to equip users with additional information to help them better understand the sources of news content that they choose to watch on YouTube,” Geoff Samek, senior product manager of YouTube News, wrote in a blog post.
While increased transparency about a news organization’s funding source may provide valuable information for viewers, the label runs the risk of conflating editorially independent public broadcasters with state-sponsored propaganda machines. This could serve to confuse rather than inform viewers and further the erosion of public trust in media by undermining reputable public broadcasters.
“Labeling PBS a ‘publicly funded broadcaster’ is both vague and misleading,” a PBS Spokesperson told Mashable via email. “If YouTube’s intent is to create clarity and better understanding, this is a step in the wrong direction.”
Moreover, the notice places the burden of accounting for a video’s veracity and objectivity onto users, not on the platform.
First reported by the Wall Street Journal, YouTube is calling the feature the “news publisher funding notice,” which is currently rolling out in the U.S. It will appear underneath the video next to an “i” icon and include a link to the Wikipedia page of news organizations, so users can take it upon themselves to learn more about the editorial independence, or lack thereof, of a news source. The icon’s description notes that “it is not a comment by YouTube on the publisher’s or video’s editorial direction or a government’s editorial influence.”
The flag will affect Russia Today (RT), the Russian government-funded news outlet that’s widely perceived as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin. According to a report from the New York Times, YouTube was instrumental in growing RT’s presence in the US — which now has over 2.2 billion views on its “RT News” channel alone.
Since the revelations about Russia’s use of social media in an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. election, YouTube has taken steps against RT specifically, including removing RT from its premium ad program. RT also recently had to officially register as a foreign agent with the U.S. government. So the YouTube notice could help alert users to the fact that RT is not an independent (and likely not agenda-free) news source.
RT’s notice reads, “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government,” while PBS is called a “publicly funded American broadcaster.”
But YouTube will also use the “notice” to flag organizations like America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), or the British Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Despite the fact that these news entities receive some public funding, they are editorially independent independent by statute.
“PBS receives a small percentage of its funding from the federal government; the majority of funding comes from private donations,” a PBS Spokesperson said. “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.”
The wording in the notice for RT vs. PBS have slight differences; RT’s notice reads, “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government,” while PBS is called a “publicly funded American broadcaster.” However, the semantic difference does not actually provide any clarity about the difference between a “publicly-funded broadcaster” and a possible media tool of the government.
The notices run the risk of painting RT and organizations like PBS with the same brush. That runs the risk of undermining the credibility of programs like PBS News Hour at a time when public broadcasters are under threat of defunding, and when trust in all news organizations is at an all-time low in part because citizens have trouble distinguishing fake news from independent reporting.
Despite these difficulties, some see the move as a positive step. Electronic Frontier Foundation Civil Liberties Director David Greene said, “We generally are supportive of providing information to users so users can make informed decisions. But we also want the platforms to be transparent about how they make these labeling judgments and to have some type of due process around the decision, should an entity that is labeled disagree with the label.”
“I think the technology companies are recognizing that they have some role to play in helping consumers to better understand the content they are being served,” says Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president of communities and impact. “What kind of information is required and to what ends is, I think, a developing conversation.”
The new labels re-open the debate about what the editorial responsibilities of an open content platform are. Few would argue against having more information about where a news source’s funding comes from. But this particular move brings with it the possibility of doing more damage than it repairs.
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