X’s Unchecked Propaganda: Engagement Soared by 70% for Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Disinformation Sources Following a Change by Elon Musk
After the platform owner removed labels from state-run, disinformation-spreading X accounts, engagement spiked, a NewsGuard review found
The X profile page of China Daily represents itself as an independent media outlet featuring a scenic banner photo of a Chinese National Forest Park, a blue checkmark that once signaled author authenticity, and a “Media & News Company” tag. “Start a conversation as we share news and analysis from #China and beyond,” the account’s About description states.
However, China Daily is not a typical news outlet that simply shares “news and analysis from #China,” as its bio proclaims. Rather, it is a Chinese government-owned newspaper that regularly advances disinformation and was formally designated by the U.S. State Department in February 2020 as a propaganda outlet controlled by the People’s Republic of China.
Until April 20, 2023, users on X (formerly known as Twitter) were notified that China Daily and other state-run outlets that lack editorial independence are “state-affiliated.” But on April 21, X owner Elon Musk stripped the platform of labels indicating which accounts are state-run. This cleared the path for Chinese propaganda sources, as well as Russian and Iranian state outlets, to disseminate disinformation unchecked with X users no longer having transparent information about the nature of the source.
The impact was immediate and dramatic.
In the 90 days following the removal of state-sponsored labels on X, engagement (the number of likes and shares) on posts from Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media English-language accounts shot up 70 percent compared with the previous 90-day period, according to a NewsGuard analysis using data from media–monitoring platform Meltwater. NewsGuard’s findings demonstrate how foreign actors are now able to reach a larger — and potentially more susceptible — audience as users engage with the accounts, possibly unaware that these sources essentially exist to spread propaganda.
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.
The state-run disinformation sources experienced a boost in engagement, despite posting nearly the same number of times as in the previous 90-day period. In the three months following X’s policy change, the 12 (four Russian, four Chinese, and four Iranian) accounts NewsGuard analyzed cumulatively garnered 4.98 million likes and reposts on a total of 63,108 posts. (X now refers to “tweets” as “posts.”) During the 90-day period before the policy change, the accounts received 2.93 million interactions on 62,551 posts.
In September 2023, X did not return two emails from NewsGuard seeking comment on these findings and on why the platform dropped the state-run media labels — a policy change that the company has not explained. Musk argued in an unrelated April 2023 X post that “all news is to some degree propaganda” and that people should “decide for themselves.” Musk’s car company Tesla manufactures and sells a large portion of its cars in China.
The decision to drop all tags came 16 days after Musk labeled NPR as “government-funded media,” which prompted a boycott of the platform by the Washington-based nonprofit news organization. NPR is funded in part by the U.S. government, but it operates under a charter independent of the government. It is also funded by programming fees paid by member stations, which are supported in part by federal, state, and local governments.
Government Propaganda Spread Without Warning
Before Musk changed the platform’s policy, X alerted users about an account’s ties to a government on the outlet’s profile page and on all of its posts. In addition, posts from accounts (state-run or not) containing links to articles from state-run media included a label with an orange exclamation point reading “Stay Informed.”
Now, it is impossible for users to know whether an account is government-affiliated unless they have previous knowledge about the outlet’s ties or do their own research.
None of the 12 state-run X accounts NewsGuard analyzed — which combined have a total of 30.9 million followers — discloses that it is government-affiliated. For example, the self-description on X of the Russian state-owned TASS News Agency states, “With us news becomes stories and events become history.” The self-description of Russian state-run RT says, “Freedom over censorship, truth over narrative,” and the account is labeled as a “Media & News Company.”
Although these 12 state-run X accounts are all known purveyors of disinformation, NewsGuard found that the posts with the highest engagement in the three months following Musk’s label-policy change did not contain blatant falsehoods. Instead, the top-performing posts regularly included memes and propaganda that apparently sought to undermine the West and its allies.
For example, on July 1, 2023, Iran’s Press TV shared a meme mocking French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to protests in France over police violence in the country and women’s rights demonstrations in Iran, accusing the French leader of “double standards.” The post, which received a total of more than 8,000 likes and reposts as of Sept. 20, 2023, was the account’s third top-performing post in the three-month period following the removal of state-run media labels.
Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut who authored an April 2022 study on how memes serve as a vehicle for misinformation, told NewsGuard in a September 2023 interview that state actors weaponize memes to spread propaganda because they “soften people up.” He added, “Many of them try to get people to laugh. Laughter makes people feel good and it makes you more susceptible to the message.”
The day X removed state-affiliated labels, state-run media outlets continued their usual operations of spreading disinformation, only this time, without the added layer of transparency.
“US ‘created’ Daesh terrorist group, 2024 presidential hopeful confirms,” Iran’s PressTV wrote in a post shared on April 21, 2023, the day the state media labels were removed. The post — liked and reposted 148 times — linked to an article on PressTV’s site that cited Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s claim that the United States “created ISIS [also known as Daesh].”
While experts point to actions by the U.S. that could have contributed to the rise of ISIS (Daesh), there is no evidence that the United States created the Islamic State or that it currently controls the group in any way. ISIS grew out of other organizations that can be traced to radicalized Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to scholars and other experts in the region.
In September 2023, NewsGuard sent emails to the 12 state-run media outlets analyzed in this report, asking whether they agree with NewsGuard’s assessment that they have repeatedly spread disinformation, and asking why they do not voluntarily disclose in their social media profiles that they are government-affiliated. None responded.
How X Pushes Users Toward State-Sponsored Disinformation
The removal of the labels is not the only policy change at X that has benefited the state actors. Another reason these accounts may be experiencing an increase in engagement is that users no longer have to actively seek out content from state-run media outlets, as X’s algorithm now regularly promotes it to users, NewsGuard found, confirming reports from other researchers.
From August 2020 until early 2023, X (then Twitter) prevented state-affiliated accounts from being boosted, saying it would not “amplify state-affiliated media accounts or their Tweets through our recommendation systems including on the home timeline, notifications, and search.”
However, press reports have documented how state-run media accounts are now regularly algorithmically recommended on users’ “For You” feeds. These pages, according to the platform on March 31, 2023, feed users content based on a post’s engagement metrics and a user’s previous activity.
Indeed, as NewsGuard analysts repeatedly visited the 12 state-run media profiles during the course of this analysis, the accounts began to appear in places where they were previously excluded, including the platform’s “Who to Follow” section and search results. For example, when a NewsGuard analyst set up a new X account and searched “China,” four of the five top results consisted of Chinese state-run media entities.
Nine of the 12 state-run accounts are also apparently getting a boost in engagement from X’s premium subscription service which, according to the platform, allows verified accounts to receive “prioritized rankings in conversations,” and appear on “For you” feeds. The premium tier also awards accounts a blue checkmark. Non-premium subscribers are no longer eligible to appear in “For you” recommendations, according to Musk, who wrote that it “is the only realistic way to address advanced AI bot swarms taking over.”
Disinformation Sources Cheer Musk’s Policy Changes
As mentioned above, it remains unclear why Musk dropped X’s labels designating state-media outlets as government-affiliated. Nevertheless, accounts that once carried a state-affiliation label have praised the move and celebrated the platform’s reduced safeguards.
“Now you can even find me in a search,” Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian state-run RT, wrote in an April 21 post thanking Musk “from the heart.” Jingjing Li, a reporter for the state-run China Global Television Network, posted on X, “The ‘China state-affiliated media’ label is gone!!!”
On Sept. 13, 2023, NewsGuard analyzed the total likes and reposts of 12 English-language X accounts of government-affiliated outlets found by NewsGuard to have spread disinformation. Data was collected using media-monitoring platform Meltwater. The 12 state-run sources analyzed included four Russian state-run sources (RT, Sputnik News, RIA Novosti, and TASS), four Iranian state-run sources (Press TV, the Islamic Republic News Agency, The Tehran Times, and Mehr News Agency), and four Chinese state-run sources (People’s Daily, Global Times, China Daily, and Xinhua). NewsGuard compared the accounts’ engagement metrics in the 90 days leading up to X’s label-policy change (Jan. 21, 2023, to April 20, 2023) with the 90 days following (April 21, 2023, to July 20, 2023).