The impact of online intermediaries on the assessment and regulation of media plurality: an in-depth analysis of Ofcom
As part of a process launched in Summer 2021, Ofcom published, on 16 November 2022, a discussion document to take into account the role played by online intermediaries in plurality and news consumption. Resulting from in-depth quantitative and qualitative research across the country, the document intends to provide a more detailed understanding of whether and how the risks identified by the regulator create problems for media plurality in the UK and to consider how they might be addressed.
How do online intermediaries - namely search engines, social media and news aggregators – impact the prominence of content?
Do users understand the recommender algorithms and their impact?
Do intermediary access to news undermine the willingness to critically engage with the accuracy and partiality of news?
These are some of the risks that the UK regulator has identified and been exploring.
With the ultimate aim to update the legal framework of media plurality assessment and regulation, Ofcom has started a 4-step process last year: a consultation was launched in 2021, followed by the publication of a statement on the future of media plurality in November 2021. As part of this plan, this new discussion document calls for comments and input from stakeholders with a view to eventually drafting formal recommendations for consideration by the UK Government*.
In addition to news consumption surveys, Ofcom has also used data from other countries and passive tracking of online data consumption, to collect stronger evidence on the actual news consumption by users.
- Main findings: a mixed picture
While being attached to the principles of media plurality, people do not seem to be well aware of the online intermediaries' influence on their own consumption.
Key role played by online intermediaries in the news consumption chain: while they do increase the diversity of news, they also significantly impact the curation, discovery and monetisation of news. They are now used by an important number of adults and undermine the overall revenue of media outlets and thus their sustainability.
Perceived values and trustworthiness of online intermediaries: while people appreciate the easy access and broad range of topics and perspectives offered thanks to online intermediaries, they usually demonstrate a lower level of trust, essentially towards social media. People remain confident in their own ability to identify misleading information, but have concerns about other people's abilities to do so. However, Ofcom's analysis shows that there is still a lack of understanding of the actual role played by online intermediaries.
Increase of quick and passive consumption of news: the use of online intermediaries has increased a passive consumption of news with less attention on the source of the news, usually underestimated by users.
Limits of current empowerment tools (e.g. cookies' consent): most of the people have no opinions or real comprehension of these tools and usually accept all cookies, for quickness or by lack of understanding of the concrete impact.
Social media as a specific issue:: people accessing news from social media tend to ltrust democratic institutions less, feel more antipathy towards people with different political views and are less likely to correctly identify important factual information. Currently in the UK, 79% of young people access news from social media.
Source: Page 19 of the discussion's paper - Ofcom
- Consequences and next steps:
Traditional approaches to measuring media plurality need to be amended: the current approach - industry standard metrics completed with news consumption surveys – is too much focused on traditional media (ownership concentration) and does not provide a clear picture on the actual reach of news providers (difficulties to clearly identify the news content consumed and the source of access of such news [online intermediaries, news website...]).
The regulation of media plurality online requires effective, necessary and proportionate tools to address the new risks identified by the regulator while being careful not to create risks for freedom of expression. In this regard, Ofcom intends to first gather further evidence on risks of harm and then, assess the potential negative effects and feasability of the different remedies (increasing transparency, empowering user choice, direct interventions on content prominence, sustainability of news providers).
Ofcom now calls for comments from industry and interested parties on this first overall analysis and assessment of the current situation and the potential tools identified to measure and secure media plurality.
Ofcom also intends to undertake further research, hopefully with access to more relevant data from online intermediaries, to better understand the potential bias in algorithms recommendations, the risk of echo chambers, the role of online intermediaries in trust in news media and the impact of online intermediaries on misinformation spread and people's acquisition knowledge of factual information, views and behaviours.
To respond to this document and share your feedback, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reforming UK's plurality framework: a timeline
- Summer 2021: consultation
- November 2021: Statement on the future of media plurality
- November 2022: Discussion document
- By 2024: final recommendations for consideration by the UK Government.
* The tools available for regulators to assess and regulate media plurality are in the hands of the Government and Parliament in the UK.
The main findings and conclusions of this report were presented to EPRA members at the 56th EPRA meeting in Antalya on 13 October 2022.