Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Facebook said Thursday it will begin blocking state-controlled media outlets from buying advertising in the U.S. this summer. It's also rolling out a new set of labels to provide users with transparency around ads and posts from state-controlled outlets. Outlets that feel wrongly labeled can appeal the process.

Why it matters: Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of security policy, says the company hasn't seen many examples yet of foreign governments using advertising to promote manipulative content to U.S. users, but that the platform is taking this action out of an abundance of caution ahead of the 2020 election.

Details: Beginning Thursday, the types of state-backed media that U.S. users will see labels on include outlets like Russia's Sputnik, China's People's Daily, Iran's Tasnim News Agency and others.

  • The list is dynamic. Facebook is working with experts around the world to continuously evaluate the list of outlets classified as "state-backed."
  • The labels will exist on the state-backed outlet's Facebook page in the platform's ad library. It will also be labeled on organic posts, but only in the U.S. for now.
  • Outlets that are labeled as "state-backed" won't be able to buy ads to promote their content to users in the United States.

The purpose of labeling these outlets is to give users transparency about any kind of potential bias a state-backed entity may have when providing information to U.S. users.

  • Gleicher says it's labeling these outlets, not removing them altogether, because in many places around the world, state-backed media is the only form of local news.
  • Facebook considers an outlet to be state-backed not just if it takes state funding, but also based on the organization's structure (whether a government official helps them make editorial decisions) and whether there are clear indications that the entity has editorial independence (like a law or charter granting them that independence).

Be smart: With this move, Facebook is again following the path of Twitter, which barred all state-backed outlets from buying ads anywhere last August after finding that more than 900 accounts originating from inside China had been part of a coordinated effort to undermine political protests in Hong Kong.

The big picture: In the past, Facebook has taken down a number of posts and accounts from state-backed media entities that were used to manipulate U.S. users.

  • It hasn't gone so far yet as to ban advertising from those entities. But recognizing that news outlets can use advertising to promote their content — which could be biased depending on the outlet — Facebook said in 2018 that it would create a "news index" to refer to when deciding which Pages to target with global news products.
  • Coordinated inauthentic behavior from foreign entities, including state-backed media, became a major issue for Facebook in the U.S. after it was discovered that Russian state-backed disinformation campaigns utilized organic posts and advertising to sow discord ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

What's next: In the future, labels will roll out to Instagram and individual ads around the world. For now, the labels will only exist on Facebook and in the U.S.

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