UK comms regulator Ofcom is worried that US tech giants have too much control over the news consumption of British voters.
A press release titled ‘Who controls the news we see online?’ set the scene for the now familiar hand wringing over the flow of information online, especially that which may have political influence. The electoral surprises of 2016 upset the established order and led to the desperate conclusion that the unwitting public must have been led astray by dark forces. The Cambridge Analytica non-story was one of the first manifestations of this but barely a day goes by without a moral panic over ‘misinformation’.
In the UK the Johnson government had the bright idea of expanding the role of Ofcom to include online censorship as a prelude to introducing a draconian new law designed to massively increase its powers over what is said on the internet. That ‘online safety bill’ received considerable opposition, and seems likely to be watered down a bit, but it looks like Ofcom isn’t prepared to give up its new powers without a fight.
So every now and then it just happens to produce a report detailing the peril of wrongthink we face whenever we venture online, The clear inference being we need Ofcom’s and the UK government’s benign protection and that the surrender of even more civil liberties is a small price to pay for such safety.
“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,” said Ali-Abbas Ali, Competition Director in Ofcom’s Broadcast and Online Content Group. “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.”
That’s right, Ofcom already has an Online Content Group. And all this talk of making recommendations to the government and parliament is disingenuous since that same government is the one that has massively increased Ofcom’s powers. In this scenario at least, Ofcom seems to exist mainly to give a veneer of legitimacy and impartiality to the will of politicians, allowing them to perpetually pass powers backwards and forwards between themselves in a closed loop.
“Our early analysis signals that new regulations may be required to understand and address the impact of online gatekeepers on media plurality,” says the press release – there’s a shocker. “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.”
The research conducted by Ofcom to justify such intervention has uncovered that quite a lot of people get their news from the internet – another shocker (see chart). An especially telling finding was that “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.”
Leaving aside the clear false cause (correlation/causation) fallacy baked into that statement, who says any of that is the business of Ofcom or the government to correct? It’s not like there are no other reasons for people to lose trust in democratic institutions, especially in the UK this year. And most newspapers have an identifiable political bias, but somehow that’s OK.
The finding we do have some sympathy is the matter of transparency. When people read the Guardian they surely know there will be a heavy leftist editorial bias and the converse is true of the Telegraph. “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,” says the Ofcom announcement.
There’s a big difference between demanding greater transparency and the state appointing itself the arbiter of what we get to see online, however. Facebook, for example, provides an appalling user experience these days, which could be easily remedied by it being forced to offer a clear option to switch from a curated timeline (i.e. manipulated to increase Meta revenues), to a pure chronological one. That feels like an acceptable level of regulatory intervention.
The underlying theme of ‘online safety’ in the UK has always been one of control. UK-based media can be leant on in all kinds of ways by the government and Ofcom but Google, Facebook, etc are largely beyond their influence. That, in itself, is apparently viewed as a problem in need of solving, but what are the criteria by which we can be so sure that an online news stream controlled by the state is ‘better’ than one controlled by Facebook?
Rather than try to win over the public by simply being more competent, it seems the government would rather try to control the flow of information to better suit its own agenda. It’s probably too much to hope that Ofcom might recommend the government look to itself before blaming US tech companies for the contempt in which it’s held by the electorate. But a move to force those companies into giving individuals greater control over their news feeds could well provide a political win too.