Insights Ofcom publishes discussion document on media plurality and online news


As Ofcom explains, it has been almost two decades since the UK’s media plurality framework was last updated. In that time, the way in which people consume news has changed dramatically. The sheer scale of options now available can be as overwhelming as they are informative, with trustworthy content fighting for space and attention alongside more sensationalist and unreliable material.

As intermediaries increasingly play the role of gatekeepers, curating or recommending news content to online audiences (e.g. Facebook, Apple News and Google News), it is not clear that people are aware of the choices being made on their behalf, or their impact.

To better understand the implications of these changes, last year Ofcom started a programme of work on the future of media plurality. Specifically, it set out to examine the possible impacts of the growth of online news, and the role of online intermediaries on media plurality, and what if any regulatory changes may be necessary to maintain and secure it.

Ofcom’s discussion document sets out its understanding of how online intermediaries currently operate within the UK news ecosystem. It explains the role they play in the news value chain, examines the potential risks they might pose and discusses some potential options for amending the regulatory framework to help secure positive outcomes for media plurality in the UK.

In terms of how people respond to online intermediaries’ news content, findings include:

  • people value online intermediaries to help them discover news: people 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;
  • 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; however, people are not 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, e.g. Ofcom’s research shows a great deal of confusion about whether news online is personalised: 35% of people think it is, 36% think not, and 29% are unsure; when Ofcom explains that current “media plurality” rules do not apply to social media, search engines or news-gathering apps, people are surprised and concerned.

Ofcom says that this signals that new regulations may be required to understand and address the impact of online gatekeepers on media plurality. These might include new tools to require tech firms to be more transparent over the choices they make in determining the news people see online, as well as giving users themselves more choice and control.

Over the coming months, building on the questions posed through the discussion document, Ofcom says that it will be engaging with industry and interested parties. It then intends to develop formal recommendations for consideration by the Government. To access the discussion document, click here.