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After Twitter labeled Serbian pro-government media: It is important to know who controls and exercises pressure on media

Twitter profiles labeled as “Media outlet that cooperates with the government [in] Serbia” (in Serbian: “Медиј који сарађује са владом Србијa). Collage by Global Voices, CC BY.

This story by Mihaela Šljukić Bandović originally appeared at Istinomer (Truth-O-Meter), a fact-checking initiative of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA). An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

After deleting more than 8,500 accounts last year that promoted President Aleksandar Vucic and Serbian Progressive Party, Twitter gave them another headache by labelling tweets as media controlled by the Government of Serbia. In response to Serbian authorities’ accusations that this was censorship, this company told Istinomer that it was important for Twitter users to know when the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, explaining their guidelines when making such distinctions.

It has been a long time since the Serbian media scene has been as greatly disturbed as after the Twitter decision to label these accounts as “media outlet that cooperates with the government [in] Serbia”.

Twitter applied this label to public broadcaster RTS, regional public broadcaster Radio Television Vojvodina, Politika daily, news agency Tanjug, online media outlet B92, TV Prva, TV Pink, TV Hepi, tabloids Kurir and Informer.

While some believe that Twitter only confirmed common knowledge in Serbia, and what was visible in media monitoring of local and international non-governmental organizations, the government and labelled media accused Twitter of censorship, claimed it was an attack on media freedom. Daily newspaper Novosti reported that President Aleksandar Vučić said that the labeling is “a political weapon in the hands of CIA or the Pentagon!”

Istinomer asked Twitter to define the criteria and methodology for labelling government-affiliated media.  The company press office said that they distinguish between media financed from public funds and those controlled by governments or states, since their “focus is to label state-controlled media which are not free from political and government pressures”.

Media affiliated with the state are defined as media where “the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources and direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution”. Twitter continued:

“We believe it is important for people using Twitter to know when media are controlled by the government as regards financing and editorial content. This control is exercised either through self-censorship or by announcing information under government directive. We will not publish the list of all accounts which are labelled as state-affiliated, to prevent the states that want to avoid this labelling to open new accounts in order to trick the system”.

The company said that they consulted “many stakeholders, including academics and researchers, government, expert organizations and those using their services”, and that, in their opinion, such labelling of accounts was “efficient since it provides context and information to the users on the origin of account and its potential intent”.

Although they have not specifically listed applied methodology, Twitter notes that in order to label the media as state-controlled, they use the reports of numerous expert organizations as their sources, such as the Media Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders and Freedom House. in a recent report, Reporters without Borders says that “Serbia is a country with weak institutions that is prey to fake news spread by government-backed media”, while Freedom House criticizes Serbia for “pro-government propaganda, which contributed to the SNS’s sweeping election victory”.

Danilo Krivokapic, Director of digital rights-promoting Share Foundation, told Istinomer that it was of utmost importance for this platform to announce the reasoning behind their decision. He said he believes this is not “classic censorship”, since  Twitter does not recommend or enhance accounts or tweets, and media are still able to publish content without disturbance, with followers having full access to tweets.

Krivokapic continued:

Twitter, and other platforms too, have been justifying for too long that they are nothing more than intermediaries in informing, without any liability for it, but numerous side pressure have caused them to change their practice and have more responsibility for their users. At the beginning of this year Twitter blocked the then American President Trump, and Facebook has, along with its partnership organizations, started labelling fake news more seriously so I believe this Twitter decision came from that. It is reasonable in that sense to first label the media that depend of government, since such influence is the most obvious and prevalent, but we have to have all information on how such decisions were made so we could have confidence in such system.

Twitter started the practice of labelling the state- or government-controlled media in August 2020. It focused first on China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States of America. In February 2021 that practice was extended to 15 more countries: Canada, Cuba, Ecuador, Germany, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and United Arab Emirates and Serbia.

Although they have used the same censorship narrative, leading Russian and Chinese media that were labelled by Twitter as government-affiliated media, such as RTS, stopped using that social media as a sign of protest.

To make the situation more dramatic, President Vucic said that he could wait for Twitter to shut down his account and make him another Trump. This comment was reported around the world, including in the Washington Post, which describes him as a “Serbian autocratic leader”.

President Vucic asked why it was wrong that some media had cooperated with the government. He even congratulated the media “opposing the obedient network”, saying that Twitter really flattered those media, as they did not opt to cooperate with “tycoons, thieves and criminals”. In his words, the government was not paying the majority of those media outlets, “while they are paying Voice of America and BBC, but they have not listed them as government-affiliated media”.

Ministry of Culture and Information issued an announcement expressing surprise regarding Twitter's actions, noting:

Министарство не улази у то шта је навело овај вишејезични сајт да од размене мишљења и слободе говора, што сами истичу, стигне до цензуре појединих медија у нашој земљи али скреће пажњу да је обележавање медија и њихових уредника или руководства, небитно од кога да долази, непожељно и да не води демократском дијалогу којем ми као друштво тежимо.

The Ministry doesn't comment on what has made this multilingual site [Ed: Twitter] to move from their stated position of promoting an exchange of opinions and freedom of speech to censoring some media in our country, but emphasizes that  labeling media and their editors or management, regardless by whom, is not desirable and doesn't lead to democratic dialogue as a goal in our society.

The Serbian Broadcasting Corporation also used the financing argument. In its longish press release issued on August 18 it emphasized that Twitter users had not been warned that Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle were completely financed from the state budget as the state was their founder, while Serbian Broadcasting Corporation was labelled as “affiliated” although it was not financed from the state budget. As far as other criteria had been concerned, as mentioned in the press release, by analyzing the content RTS had published on Twitter, the computer algorithm could not have established that content was made under pressure or influence of the government in Serbia. RTS therefore estimated that Twitter's decision was “unfounded and political”, so it stopped publishing its content on this social media (@rts_vesti).

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