New Ofcom research on social media and news consumption

posted on 27 March, 2024   (public)

Research highlights the significant role played by online intermediaries in news consumption and the potential impact on news production

On 25 March, Ofcom released its latest research into media plurality online, based on three new studies into the role that online intermediaries play in how news is curated and presented, and the impact this has on individuals and news publishers. The research focuses on social media platforms, Facebook in particular, and builds on Ofcom's existing evidence base on the topic.

Key findings

  • The ranking of news content in a social media feed has a substantial impact on the amount of time people spend viewing, reading, and engaging with news content.

  • Social media platforms expose users to a diverse range of news outlets. However, they tend to cover a narrow range of news topics than they might encounter on a traditional news website.

  • People have limited control over their social media news feeds, so trying to design interventions to improve the breadth and quality of news consumed on social media is a complex task.

  • There is emerging evidence that social media may influence the type of news that is produced

  • Like-minded, polarising, and false information drives user engagement while platforms have strong incentives to keep people in "automatic scrolling mode". 

  • AI-generated news content may bring new challenges to publishers, already strongly dependent on Google and Meta to drive traffic to their websites. 


Ofcom's new report presents the findings in detail, alongside insights from the latest academic literature on the topic.


More on the research

The report is accompanied by three annexes:

Media plurality online: attention to news on social media (Annex 1)

Commissioned by the regulator, Lumen Research carried out an online experiment using eye tracking technology to study the attention given to news items in a social media feed. The findings show that news posts which are displayed higher in a user’s social media feed receive up to 14 times as much attention compared to those positioned at the bottom of the feed. The placing of a post in the social media feed also impacted recall of the news story, with users being eight times more likely to spontaneously recall the news story if it was displayed towards the top of their feed vs. the bottom.
Online intermediaries and the diversity of news content (Annex 2)

This research examines the news diets of people who use online intermediaries and compares them to those of individuals who go directly to news websites. The analysis uses a new technique involving a large language model which examines the text of news articles to identify the topics. Ofcom finds that people who use online intermediaries to access news are exposed to a higher diversity of news outlets. However, for topic diversity the regulator finds the opposite, where more reliance on online intermediaries (in particular social media and search engines) is associated with a lower range of topics covered in the news content served.

Online news qualitative research (Annex 3)

Ipsos was commissioned to carry out this qualitative study, which blended qualitative interviews with passive observations to explore how user behaviours changed (or did not) in response to different interventions. The study tested some potential interventions that, according to the existing literature, could have had a positive impact on peoples’ news diets. The results suggest that designing such interventions is a complex task with several competing variables that can impact on outcomes.


Next steps

Ofcom plans to use these findings to help inform its forthcoming review of public service media in the UK. This review will consider a number of topics, including the role of public service broadcasters in delivering trusted, impartial and accurate news, and how this can be sustained.

The findings will also contribute to Ofcom's ongoing assessment of the potential risks posed by online intermediaries and emerging technologies, including generative AI, which is disrupting how news is created, verified, distributed and consumed.

Source: Ofcom