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November 17, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:46am

Ofcom warns that secret tech giant algorithms may be bad for media plurality

By Charlotte Tobitt

Ofcom has agreed with the likes of Mail Online and The Sun that opaque algorithms from Google and Facebook may be bad for media plurality.

The watchdog said it would now prepare to make a final call on the potential risks posed by the algorithms, and will report further on whether anything should be done to address the concerns raised by summer 2022.

Guardian Media Group, for example, had suggested Ofcom should be granted new powers to obtain data from platforms, while the National Union of Journalists called for enforced algorithmic transparency.

[Read more: The Sun and Mail Online believe they aren’t getting fair share of Google search traffic]

After consulting with the news industry and platforms, Ofcom decided there are three key issues that could put media plurality in the UK at risk and are not currently covered by legislation or regulation.

The first was the way platforms like Google and Facebook control the prominence they give to different news sources and stories using their algorithms.

“This issue presents a potential concern about the level of influence any one intermediary may be able to exercise over the range of viewpoints that citizens can access and consume, including where these might restrict the variety of viewpoints that citizens might be exposed to, and over the political agenda and political process,” Ofcom said.

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The watchdog also said the algorithms are not transparent enough.

“This issue presents a potential concern about the ability of citizens to be sufficiently informed in their news consumption choices,” it said.

“It also presents a potential concern about our ability as a regulator to fully observe and assess influence over the news agenda and political process.”

Ofcom also identified a media literacy issue as consumers “do not always critically engage with the accuracy and partiality of online news sources” or understand why they are served the content they see.

This may mean they are not sufficiently informed about the sources where they choose to get their news, it said. Although this can apply to traditional media, the problem has been exacerbated by the rise of digital news challengers.

Mail Online publisher DMG Media had told Ofcom that readers place “great faith in Google”, but: “Unless they are students of search visibility, they have no idea that when they search for news Google invariably takes them to two left-leaning news sources, the Guardian and BBC.”

Google is the biggest single source of traffic for every major news website in the UK, and Mail Online and The Sun both told Ofcom they felt they were unfairly downgraded in search rankings. Mail Online questioned if there was a political bias against them and accused Google of punishing publishers selling adverts outside Google’s ad exchange, while The Sun complained that its scoops are frequently buried by other outlets ripping them off.

The News Media Association, which represents the national and regional news industry, told Ofcom: “There have been concerns that search engines operate on political biases but owing to the lack of transparency over algorithmic inputs and decision making this is unknowable.

“However, we do know that search engines rate recency over provenance, meaning that a news publisher who invested in breaking a story may not receive prominence for that content.

“Publishers who subsequently cover a story may receive more traffic. This creates a false incentive for publishers, who need traffic.”

ITV also argued that high-quality news suffers because it is “demoted in favour of the salacious and sensational”.

“Global platforms are increasingly guiding and curating the choices of audiences. These platforms are rewarded through views and clicks and are therefore incentivised to show content that is the most ‘engaging’.”

Similarly Guardian Media Group argued Facebook rewarded “emotive, provocative, divisive, or opinionated” content as it appears to value high levels of engagement such as user comments.

Sun and Times publisher News UK described the lack of transparency over algorithms as a “significant barrier” for the news industry, which is at the whim of sudden changes.

Meanwhile several industry responses shared concerns that international and national content is favoured over regional or local content, and that English language content is favoured over minority language content.

Gaelic media service MG Alba said: “Prominence is invaluable for minority
language media, which due to its constraints, such as funding and audience, will be unable to generate/buy the prominence.”

Picture: Shutterstock

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