Engagement with Foreign Propaganda is Soaring on Elon Musk’s X

Once upon a time, Twitter (now renamed X) routinely tried to label what it deemed “state affiliated” news sites, in an effort to highlight potential government disinformation and propaganda. After Elon Musk took over the platform late last year, however, he decided to put the kibosh on that policy. Predictably, new research shows that, since Musk did away with the site’s media labeling, user engagement with foreign propaganda has exploded.

A new report from NewsGuard, which analyzes media trends, claims that sites like Russia’s RT and TASS, China Daily, and Iran’s PressTV, have seen explosions in user engagement since X purged its media labels earlier this year. Indeed, the report claims that, in the 90 days that followed the removal of the “state affiliated” labels from these organizations, engagement with posts from the English-language versions of their accounts shot up by some 70 percent.

The report notes:

Russia’s RT gained the most engagement after X users no longer had access to the information that the outlet — which changed its name from the more transparent Russia Today several years ago — is operated by the government of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. It nearly doubled its engagement, to 2.5 million likes and reposts from 1.3 million, after the removal of the disclosure. Following the change in X policy, Russia’s TASS grew engagement by 63 percent, Iran’s PressTV by 97 percent, and China’s Global Times by 26 percent.

(It should be noted that, though the U.S. government has officially accused them of being propaganda outlets, some of these organizations have previously disavowed claims that they lack editorial independence. An ongoing argument exists over what exactly counts as a “state affiliated” media organization.)

Foreign propaganda is getting boosted by X’s algorithm, researchers claim

Why, exactly, are users engaging with this kind of content so much more frequently? Well, according to NewsGuard’s report, X’s own algorithm appears to be amplifying the content, thus creating a larger audience for it. Prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter claimed that content from “state affiliated” media could never be boosted by its algorithm. However, NewsGuard says that, since Musk’s takeover, stories from sites like RT and China Daily are “algorithmically recommended” in users’ “For You” feeds with some regularity. Previous research has highlighted this trend, showing that Musk’s changes have allowed foreign disinformation campaigns to gain increasing visibility.

Jack Brewster, an analyst with NewsGuard, told Gizmodo it’s clear that, under Musk, “X now gives readers much less information about the sources from which they’re getting their news” and that the site’s recently tweaked information filtering processes have clearly “had a substantial effect on how disinformation spreads on the platform.”

Musk’s changes have made an already complex informational landscape that much more confusing

Of course, it’s important to note that Twitter/X’s disinformation problem did not begin with Elon Musk. The platform has always been a cess pool of propaganda and much of that propaganda does not originate via news organizations—state affiliated or otherwise. Armies of bots and trolls, weaponized by government agencies, political operatives, celebrities, and shadowy contractors, are routinely used to manipulate the flow of information on the site. It also recently came to light that, in the years prior to the rollout of the “state affiliated” media labels, Twitter blatantly helped amplify the U.S.’s own propaganda efforts in the Middle East, meaning that it could hardly be called a neutral arbiter of information during that period.

Twitter’s media labeling policy—which Musk did away with—was also a mess. Notably, the platform labeled state-affiliated news organizations run by America’s geopolitical foes (China, Russia, and Iran), but did not dole out similar labels for Western media outlets. Radio Free Europe, the government funded news organization that, during the height of the Cold War, received significant covert funds and programmatic direction from the CIA, and which continues to be financed by the government, was never given the same treatment as RT or China Daily. Voice of America, an openly state-owned news network, was also never labeled until Musk showed up. These U.S. organizations have claimed that their editorial policies make them different than foreign state media organizations.

Brewster readily acknowledges that the pre-Musk labeling policy had some problems, though he notes that the recent changes have clearly dispensed with important guardrails that, no matter how flimsy, were designed to combat a certain amount of information pollution on the platform.

“I don’t think Twitter before Musk did things perfectly,” said Brewster. “But I think we should always be trying to think of new ways to give people more information instead of less—especially on social media platforms, where the accountability and transparency is usually next to none. I think these platforms—the internet, overall—were not really built to spread information in a responsible way. Instead of getting better, though, this situation seems to be getting worse.”

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