Ofcom study raises concerns about news ‘gatekeepers’

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In a new prime news study, Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, has identified concerns about the impact of online news ‘gatekeepers’ – particularly social media, such as Facebook, but also search engines and news applications such as Apple News and Google News.

Ofcom report, Media plurality and online newshighlights how these companies – which are used by two out of three adults online for news – determine not only how much online information they see, but also how they react to it.

Ofcom’s findings include:

  • People appreciate online intermediaries to help them discover the news. They credit search engines with helping them learn more about stories they’ve seen elsewhere, and news app notifications for letting them see breaking news or stories from multiple angles.
  • But social media could have a polarizing effect. People who primarily use social media to access information are more likely to be less tolerant of opposing political views, less able to correctly identify factual information, and less confident in democratic institutions, compared to those who use television and newspapers. Other international studies support these findings; users have been found to become less politically polarized if they deactivate their Facebook account for only four weeks.
  • And people are unclear about the influence of Guardians on the news they see. Nine out of ten think the choice of information, covered by a range of organisations, is important. But people aren’t always clear about the choices social media, search and news apps make on their behalf, and why certain stories are or aren’t shown to them. For example, Ofcom research shows great confusion about whether online information is personalized: 35% of people think so, 36% think no and 29% are unsure. When Ofcom explains that current ‘media plurality’ rules don’t apply to social media, search engines or newsgathering apps, people are surprised and worried.

Accessing news has never been easier

The growth of online news means people can access a wider range of stories, voices and viewpoints than ever before. Technology companies – such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple – are increasingly at the heart of this news landscape. They act as online gatekeepers, curating and recommending news content, and are now used by 64% of adults online.

In 2005, 18% of people told us that they used the Internet for information. In 2022, this figure is 66%. One in seven UK adults (14%) now only watch news online.

Facebook has become the third most popular news source in the UK, after the BBC and ITV, while among young teens, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube top the list.

The report examines the implications of this structural change in news consumption habits.

Ofcom’s early analyzes signal that new regulations may be needed to understand and address the impact of online gatekeepers on media plurality.

This could include new tools to force tech companies to be more transparent about the choices they make in determining what news we see online, as well as giving users themselves more choice and control.

Any decision on the remedies needed to address media plurality concerns is ultimately a matter for government and parliament.

Building on the questions raised in the study, Ofcom will engage with industry and interested parties in the coming months. It then intends to develop formal recommendations for consideration by the UK government.

“Our news landscape has seen a huge transformation over the past decade, with online businesses providing easy access to an ever-widening pool of stories, voices and opinions,” advises Ali-Abbas Ali , Director of Competition in Ofcom’s Online Content and Broadcast Group. “But while there’s no shortage of choice, new concerns are emerging about the impact of the decisions tech companies make on our behalf to determine what news we see – and don’t see – in our feeds. We are undertaking further work to interrogate this issue and plan to make formal recommendations to government to ensure the UK’s diverse and vibrant media landscape is secure for the future,” he concludes.

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