With claims to more than one billion users consuming content in 76 languages, Google’s YouTube has become a core part of most media outlets’ dissemination strategy. And although there are 88 localized versions of the service, YouTube.com remains the largest and most influential platform for reaching a global audience. Which is why, when the site quietly rolled out new notices on the channels and videos of state and publicly-funded news outlets, many of these outlets expressed concern.
The notation ostensibly appears only for U.S.-based users of YouTube.com and labels a channel as funded in whole or in part by a government, or as publicly funded, and provides links to their respective Wikipedia pages. The effort reflects the company’s interest in surfacing more authoritative news content and is the latest in a series of steps, including tweaking its recommendations algorithm, that the platform has taken to improve its news service, Geoff Samek, senior product manager at YouTube News, wrote in a blog announcing the new initiative.
The YouTube policy is the latest development in the information wars waging between Russia and the U.S. Since the 2016 presidential election, top officials at the major social media companies have been hauled before Congress to explain how Russia-linked content spread through their networks and what they were going to do to combat the disinformation campaigns. A study by the Guardian found significant partisanship in the videos recommended by YouTube’s algorithms, while another by BuzzFeed‘s Craig Silverman showed that counterfeit news articles far outperformed legitimate news articles on Facebook during the election.
Late last year, the US. Department of Justice required RT, the government-funded international news network formerly called Russia Today, to register as a foreign agent–prompting Russia to retaliate and require that media outlets that receive all or partial funding from sources outside Russia to be designated as foreign agents. The Russian Justice Ministry was given discretion to designate additional journalists or media outlets as foreign agents.
Giving more context on news videos is aimed at improving transparency and show congress that the company is making a good-faith effort to address “the Russia problem” said Alex Walden, public policy and government relations counsel at Google. “We want people to be on notice that they should be critical,” she said, adding that the new labels are preliminary and that the company has been exploring how to refine them and work with partners with greater expertise in media ownership issues.
News outlets to which CPJ spoke were critical of the process so far, and said they were not notified of the new labels. “We were not informed about the YouTube policy,” Mhamed Krichen, Al-Jazeera Arabic’s chief news presenter and a CPJ board member, said. “However, we are currently working on a strategy to best approach this. The way the label is inserted is harmful to the brand because it implicitly tell the audience ‘Al Jazeera is a propaganda platform for Qatar.'”
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees U.S.-funded international broadcasters like Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network that includes Al Hurra and Radio Sawa, also said it had not been notified in advance about the labels and expressed concern at being lumped into the same category as RT and another Russian-funded outlet, Sputnik.
Haroon Ullah, chief strategy officer at the BBG, said YouTube’s approach puts objective and independent news reporting at a disadvantage.
“We’ve lost journalists in the field, we’ve had a number of our journalists jailed, and they are under pressure, under censorship, and so when you emphasize ‘government sponsored’ a lot of people only focus in the first part of that word and everything that it connotes–it means different things in different countries,” Ullah said. “It could have detrimental effects on our journalists and just make their job harder because people see them in the same way as an RT reporter or as one of the other outlets that don’t really have the same the same contours and rigorous standards that we do.”
YouTube’s website says the new label system “is not a comment by YouTube on the publisher’s or video’s editorial direction or a government’s editorial influence.” But some of those affected said they feel otherwise.
“The policy is discriminatory for several reasons. One, a mandatory ‘disclaimer’ creates a false notion that some sources, namely privately or corporate owned ones, are intrinsically better– more legitimate, credible or objective–than others, publicly financed ones, just because of the source of their funding, and not factuality of their reporting or quality of content,” RT Deputy Editor in Chief Anna Belkina told CPJ.
Journalists have criticized news outlets of all of three groups, along with other public broadcasters, for lacking editorial independence from the governments that sponsor them. At the same time, journalists from state-funded and privately-run media alike are at risk of jail or physical violence because of their reporting, CPJ research shows. In addition to the dangers faced by journalists working for BBG-run outlets, RT and Al-Jazeera journalists have been kidnapped, arrested and killed while on assignment.
Belkina said: “Secondly, we have seen uneven application of the labels, where some outlets have received one, while others with the same style of financing have not; furthermore, even among those with ‘a disclaimer’ a hierarchy persists, for instance with the BBC News being called ‘publicly financed,’ instead of ‘government funded,’ even though it receives substantial financing straight from the U.K. defense budget.”
The challenges of verifying that last assertion is illustrative of the difficulty of figuring out how, exactly, news outlets are funded. CPJ reviewed the BBC website’s “About Us” section and FAQs and a fact sheet on the U.K.’s defense spending, but could not confirm whether the BBC does indeed receive funding directly from the defense budget. The national security strategy put forth by the ruling Conservative party in 2015 identified the BBC as a critical pillar of soft power, but did not address the sourcing of its funds. An inquiry emailed to the BBC press office yesterday was not answered.
It can be incredibly difficult and resource intensive to figure out who owns the media, and how specific outlets are funded, raising concerns that YouTube’s efforts to improve transparency may only muddle the waters further.
“It is quite difficult to get to the bottom of ownership claims. Over the last couple of decades there have been efforts to maintain ownership registries, to get to understand ownership structure for antitrust or concentration purposes,” said media scholar Monroe Price, former director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, but he noted that there is a desire for easy category markers that can be used as triggers for automated action. One impact of the new policy, he said, could be “the continued escalation of a ‘labeling race,” an international pattern of reacting regulations, all of which will limit speech.”
According to a post by Google explaining the new labeling initiative, information about ownership originates from Wikipedia or other “independent third-party source” and “does not reflect a determination made by YouTube.”
It is not clear what these independent third-party sources are, how the initial list of stations to label was decided, or which outlets are on this list. CPJ requested this information by email several times but Google did not provide it. A review by CPJ of 37 state-funded public media outlets on YouTube.com showed that 19 included notices, and the rest did not. In Hungary, for example, the ruling Fidesz party directly or indirectly controls an estimated 90% of all media in the country, according to a study by Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest; while in Turkey, a massive crackdown on the media has resulted in the state or its proxies taking control of nearly all independent outlets, according to CPJ research. The Hungarian public broadcaster’s channel carries no label whereas TRT, the Turkish public broadcaster, does. The Venezuela-based pan-Latin American channel Telesur, which is also backed by Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Bolivia, is labeled as “funded in whole or in part by several Latin American governments.”
Although YouTube said this feature was only rolled out in the U.S., when a virtual private network (VPN) was used to indicate a location in Canada or Mexico, some of the labels were nonetheless visible. The company did not say whether it would roll out the labels in other countries.
In the meantime, U.S.- and Russia-funded media outlets have found at least one thing on which they can agree: frustration with YouTube’s foray into the politics of media ownership.
UPDATE: The name of Turkish public broadcaster TRT in the 18th paragraph has been corrected.