Public Interest Content and discoverability: a new study from the Council of Europe

posted on 07 December, 2020   (public)

Defining the context, scrutinising the practices and identifying potential threats: this new report highlights ‘policy needs and potential avenues for interventions’



Prepared within the context of the work of the Committee of Experts on Media Environment and Reform (MSI-REF) of the Council of Europe, a new study entitled ‘Prioritisation uncovered – The discoverability of Public Interest Content Online’ by Eleonora Maria Mazzoli, Researcher, LSE and Dr. Damian Tambini, Associate Professor, LSE, investigates the internet-distributed ecosystem to understand what prioritisation of public interest content could mean and imply for regulatory policy.


Among the key issues addressed by the report, some points are highlighted hereafter: 


What is content prioritisation?

The authors define it as ‘the range of design and algorithmic decisions that positively discriminate and promote content by making it more discoverable or prominent on different devices and related user interfaces’, differentiating the prominence (positive discrimination of a content/service on a given interface) and the discoverability (likelihood of the content’s consumption, depending on industry dynamics, negotiations and organisational strategies).
(Table p.34)
Regarding online content, the report emphasises the lack of a coordinated approach, of a knowledge of industry practices and of a specific regulatory framework.


What is public interest content?

According to the report, the criteria to define such content and the way it should be implemented (self-regulation, co-regulation or regulation) raise very divergent views. However, it seems that a principle-based approach, focused more on categories of media organisations that can act in the public interest rather than on content ifself meets a broad agreement.
The authors have identified criteria that have emerged from their analysis and interviews with experts and stakeholders such as the degree of independence, innovation, trustworthiness or transparency for instance (see Table 2 p, 17 of the report).


What are the current industry practices?

The new practices operated by online actors seem to be partly based on public interest criteria but also on private interest, economic incentives (most viewed content) and commercial transactions (negotiations between actors of the distribution content chain). This multitude of factors makes it difficult for analysts to clearly identify the complete mechanisms behind the prioritisation of a content.


What are the risks?

The study stressed that current industry practices might lead to ‘threats to media pluralism and independence; potential private and state capture; prioritisation as soft censorship and propaganda; threat to the long-term sustainability of public service media and local content providers; threats to citizens’ autonomy and perpetuation of inequalities; and lack of intermediaries’ transparency and accountability’.


What can be done?

The authors call for :
- more transparency regarding content curation and prioritisation mechanisms;
- a co-regulation framework involving stakeholders, civil and institutional organisations to set up technical standards applying to both providers and intermediaries;
- independent scrutiny and audit of the prioritisation mechanisms;
- accountability of powerful gatekeepers while preserving their independence from the government;
- a new regime with media literacy at its core to empower consumers to make informed choices.



Source: Council of Europe

Further EPRA background:

  • Maria Donde, EPRA Vice-Chairperson, has been elected in September 2020 as the Chair of the Committee of Experts on Media Environment and Reform (MSI-REF) (see EPRA news).
  • Eleonora Maria Mazzoli was one of the guest speakers of the first EPRA podcast on media plurality in the age of algorithms which was released in July 2020. On this occasion, she highlighted the impact of the new content distribution systems on pluralism and on the potential scope of media regulation.