The EU's Media Freedom Act has recently been published in the EU's Official Journal, and the UK Media Bill continues its passage through parliament, so it's worth reflecting on how we get our news.  Not surprisingly, the BBC and ITV are the main sources, but social media is a key source and arguably more important. Ofcom has recently carried out research which shows that online intermediaries, such as social media, search engines and other online aggregators exert a significant influence on the news stories people consume.

According to Ofcom, 64% of UK adults use online intermediaries to access news, with Meta (Facebook and Instagram) being the third largest source of news in the UK after the BBC and ITV. 71% of 16–24-year-olds in the UK  use social media to keep up with news, and Ofcom says that this does not appear to change as they get older.

Ofcom conducted a series of studies to explore online intermediaries’ influence over how online news is curated and presented, and the impact this has on people, focusing especially on social media.  Its key findings were:

  • The ranking of news content in a social media feed has a substantial impact on the amount of time people spend viewing, reading, and engaging with news content. However, people don't necessarily understand the role of online intermediaries in curating the news on their feeds.
  • Social media platforms expose people to a lot of different news outlets. However, they tend to expose them to a narrower range of news topics than they might encounter on a traditional news website. 
  • People have limited control over their social media news feeds, so trying to design interventions to improve the breadth and quality of news consumed on social media is a complex task.

Evidence also suggests that incentives to keep users in ‘automatic scrolling mode’ can have implications for how people access and consume news. Studies suggest that when people make decisions ‘automatically’, their judgments tend to be more biased and recommender systems trained on automatic choices can amplify those biases.

Social media also influences what is considered news - news outlets look to see what is trending on social media and prepare reports accordingly. In addition, some news outlets may make editorial decisions based on how they expect social media to prioritise news content.

Ofcom will use the findings to inform its review of public service media later this year, which will, among other things, consider the role of public service broadcasters in delivering trusted, impartial and accurate news and how this can be sustained.  

The findings will also influence Ofcom's assessment of the potential risks posed by online intermediaries and emerging technologies, including generative AI, which is disrupting how news is created, verified, distributed and consumed.