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17 Sep, 2020 13:39

Twitter’s mislabeling of French newspaper as Russian state media shows it wields too much power & threatens free speech

Twitter’s mislabeling of French newspaper as Russian state media shows it wields too much power & threatens free speech

Independent French journal Ruptures has been incorrectly tagged as Russian state-affiliated media by Twitter. Whether deliberate or an error, it shows how easy it is for big tech to act as judge and jury on whatever it wants.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to mention Pierre Levy writing columns for RT France.

It’s a modern-day Scarlet Letter. A symbol of shame. Except, unlike in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel from 1850, the sin isn’t adultery. It’s being linked to Russia. Or China. You know, the bad guys. 

Since August, Twitter has been Russia-shaming, (or China-shaming), any media organizations that are ‘state affiliated’. This means that RT and Sputnik, as well as a slew of other Russian and Chinese media accounts, now carry a designated ‘state-affiliated media’ label at the top of their feeds. 

Every tweet these accounts put out also gets slapped with the label. Not that many people will see it. The accounts are effectively shadowbanned from appearing in the feeds of anyone who doesn’t already follow them.

Not all state-backed media organizations have to wear Twitter’s modern-day Scarlet Letter though. The Voice of America (funded by the US government) and France24 (entirely owned by the French government) have been spared the ‘informative’ labeling and suppression of its content. Back when it rolled out the new policy in August, Twitter said that state-financed media outlets “with editorial independence,” such as NPR or VOA in the US, or the BBC in the UK, don’t apply. Qatari-funded Al Jazeera doesn’t either. When it comes to its labeling of state propaganda, Twitter’s list is kind of short. It consists overwhelmingly of Russian and Chinese entities. 

At this point, I’m well aware – having worked for RT for a number of years – that many, including my own friends and family, will be supportive of Twitter’s new policy. Delighted, that finally, the insidious, malign and covert influence of Beijing and Moscow will be weeded out from the honest playing field of democratic Western discourse. 

But this is where all those enamoured with Twitter’s plan to expose Kremlin and China-linked media might want to take heed. What follows is a glaring example of how what I’m calling the ‘Scarlet Letter system’ can go badly wrong. 

On September 7, Twitter’s list of ‘state-affiliated media’ grew by one, with the curious addition of @Ruptures_fr, a French newspaper called Ruptures. It’s a Paris-based, entirely independent, (seemingly niche) Euroskeptic media outfit. Editor-in-Chief Pierre Levy assures me “we do not depend on any state, political party, group or company.” 

Staffed by a handful of writers, the monthly paper – miraculously for this day and age, it’s still printed and sent out to its loyal readers – provides analysis of European politics. It’s been going for over 20 years. There’s no dodgy money trail leading back to the Kremlin. The Ruptures team relies on its 10,000 subscribers to survive. 

When Pierre and his team discovered that their Twitter account had (mistakenly) fallen victim to the Scarlet Letter-ing scheme, they were mystified. “This ‘Russian-state affiliated media’, suddenly appeared on the 7th of September, without us ever being contacted by the social network. We have no idea what triggered such a slanderous label,” Levy told me. 

One likely reason is that Levy's opinion pieces are often published on RT's French-language website, and the fact he is the head of Ruptures is mentioned there. To claim, based on this, that the Kremlin exerts any editorial influence on the French project is not just a stretch – it's a precedent that anyone speaking out on an RT platform risks not only their own social media outreach, but also that of any of their projects, getting artificially slashed.

There was one thing that made the Ruptures team think though. “We noticed that the label appeared not long after we published a story on Russiagate in France. The article was highly critical of the way most French mainstream media covered the Russiagate scandal, detailing how unprofessional the reporting was,” continued Levy. He doesn’t know if it was deliberate. A warning, perhaps, for the crime of printing something that looked a little bit defensive of Russia. 

Another theory for the sudden appearance of the false, Russia-shaming label could be a case of mistaken identity. RT’s video agency arm is called Ruptly. And, well, Ruptly sounds kind of like Ruptures... indeed, the first four letters are the same! Pierre Levy said, “We don’t know if this is a case of human error, or a flawed algorithm. But Twitter is under pressure from the prevailing (anti-Russia) ideology. And it happened in this context.”  

Ok, so an algorithm, or even a person, at Twitter made an honest mistake. No biggie. We’ll get this cleared up in no time, thought Ruptures.

Except Twitter didn’t say that. Twitter hasn’t said anything. And it hasn’t removed the label. Ever tried to call someone, like a real human, in Twitter, the organization? (Or Uber. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or any other faceless tech giant for that matter). Ruptures has. Pierre and his team have had no response. You won’t be surprised to learn that RT hasn’t had any luck reaching Twitter’s press office either. 

This is unfortunate for the small, independent and falsely-accused Ruptures newspaper, which has to carry its digital age Scarlet Letter, and the shame that goes with it, until such time that Twitter finally decides to fix the error that it’s made. 

Those unfamiliar with our newspaper are being gravely misled by this label,” Pierre told me. “It might put people off reading us. We are determined to have it withdrawn.” Although the frankly surreal debacle hasn’t been all bad news. “We’ve gained dozens of new subscribers. Either they’re expressing their solidarity with us. Or they’re just curious.” 

There is, outside of the slightly comedic ridiculousness of this situation, something more sinister at play here. In the words of Pierre Levy, “these companies are now both judge and jury. Private entities that can allow or block, or even defame media outlets or people. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, is precious. Only a court should be able to make such judgements.” 

Up until the Ruptures incident, Twitter’s naughty state-media Scarlet Letter-ing scheme had only affected the ‘bad guys’. The ones deemed to be propaganda in the eyes of Western governments. Organizations like RT or China’s Global Times. 

But now, the system that through its shaming and suppression of the ‘baddies’ had delighted so many, has committed a slanderous error. It’s painted a tiny, fiercely independent media organization – that just so happened to print an article critical of the way Russiagate was handled in France – as ‘Russian state media’. 

Moreover, it refuses to rectify that error, or answer any messages, letters or calls. Or even acknowledge the existence of the newspaper it’s slandered. That should worry more than just some state propagandists in Moscow and Beijing. Your Twitter feed could be next. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.