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Ofcom study raises news ‘gatekeeper’ concerns

November 16, 2022

By Colin Mann

In a study of choice in news, UK comms regulator Ofcom has identified concerns around the impact of online news ‘gatekeepers’ – particularly social media, such as Facebook, but also search engines and news apps such as Apple News and Google News.

Ofcom’s report, Media plurality and online news, highlights how far these companies – which are used by two in three online adults for news – determine not only how much of the online news people see, but also how they respond to it.

Ofcom’s findings include:

  • People value online intermediaries to help them discover news. They credit search engines with helping them to find out more about stories they had seen elsewhere, and notifications from news apps with allowing them to see breaking news or stories from multiple perspectives.
  • But social media could have a polarising effect. People who mainly use social media to access news are more likely to be less tolerant of opposing political views, less able to correctly identify factual information and less trusting of democratic institutions, compared to those who use TV and newspapers. Other international studies support these findings; one found that users became less politically polarised if they deactivated their Facebook account for just four weeks.
  • And people are unclear about the influence of gatekeepers on the news they see. Nine in ten people think that choice in news, covered by a range of organisations, is important. But people aren’t always clear about the choices that social media, search and news apps are making on their behalf, and why certain stories are shown to them or not. For example, Ofcom research shows a great deal of confusion about whether news online is personalised: 35 per cent of people think it is, 36 per cent think not, and 29 per cent are unsure. When Ofcom explains that current ‘media plurality’ rules don’t apply to social media, search engines or news-gathering apps, people are surprised and concerned.

Accessing news has never been easier

The growth in online news means that people are able to access a wider range of stories, voices and views than ever before. Tech firms – such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple – are increasingly central to this news landscape. They act as online gatekeepers, curating and recommending news content, and are now used by 64 per cent of online adults.

In 2005, 18 per cent of people told us they used the internet for news. In 2022, this figure stands at 66 per cent. One in seven (14 per cent) UK adults now only look at news online.

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

The report discusses the implications of this structural shift in news consumption habits.

Ofcom’s early analysis signals that new regulations may be required to understand and address the impact of online gatekeepers on media plurality.

This might include new tools to require tech firms to be more transparent over the choices they make in determining the news we see online, as well as giving users themselves more choice and control.

Any decisions about what remedies may be needed to address media plurality concerns are ultimately a matter for government and parliament.

Building on the questions raised in the study, Ofcom will be engaging 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 huge transformation over the last decade, with online firms offering easy access to an ever-wider pool of stories, voices and opinions,” advises Ali-Abbas Ali, Competition Director in Ofcom’s Broadcast and Online Content Group. “But while there’s no lack of choice, new concerns are emerging about the impact of the decisions that tech firms make on our behalf to determine the news stories we do – and don’t – see in our feeds. We’re undertaking further work to interrogate this issue and expect to make formal recommendations to government to ensure the UK’s diverse and vibrant news landscape is secured for the future,” he concludes.


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