UK regulator may force social media sites to reveal algorithms

Twitter, TikTok and other big social media sites could be forced to disclose the codes behind their feeds in an effort to stop young people from being served news that drives them to extremes, the UK’s media regulator has said.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom chief executive, told the Financial Times that she was becoming ever more worried by evidence suggesting news feeds are aggravating divisions in society, while the algorithms determining what users see receive little public scrutiny.

“The more you consume your news from social media, the more likely you are to have more polarised views and find it harder to cope with other people’s views,” said Dawes, referring to research published by the watchdog on Wednesday. “That’s a real concern.”

Her warning marks the start of Ofcom’s review into its “media plurality” regime and whether it should be expanded to cover the role of tech platforms in hosting news. The body’s recommendations, which could include requesting new powers over social media platforms, are expected in 2024.

Such a move would add to what is already one of the broadest remits of any communications watchdog in the world, spanning everything from BBC impartiality, postal services and competition in telecoms to the radio spectrum used by smart keys and doorbells.

Dawes already regulates UK-based video sharing sites such as TikTok and OnlyFans and has been hiring dozens of staff in anticipation of the long-stalled online safety bill, which would further empower Ofcom to punish internet companies that fail to protect users.

The review comes as Elon Musk’s $44bn purchase of Twitter has heightened concerns over a “hellscape” emerging on platforms with lax moderation. Dawes planned to meet the social media group’s executive team on a forthcoming trip to the US, but nothing has been rescheduled since the Tesla billionaire took control and cleared out its top ranks.

“It’s very important for any social media platform to be sure that they’re still able to protect the public,” said Dawes of Musk’s tumultuous start at Twitter.

She said it was vital to figure out why social media platforms were driving “great polarity”, noting one line of investigation would examine algorithms that “amplify emotional reaction” to news and potentially lead users “into an echo chamber”. 

The academic evidence remains far from definitive. However, preliminary research by Ofcom found people using social media most often to access news were less likely than those who frequently used television and newspapers to correctly identify salient facts, felt more antipathy towards people who held different political views and showed less trust in democratic institutions.

“We think the starting point is transparency,” said Dawes, referring to potential recommendations. “So it may not be about setting rules but it may be about requiring more transparency or giving the regulator the ability to shine a light [on] how these feeds and algorithms work.” 

Dawes, an economist and former Whitehall mandarin, took the helm as Ofcom entered one of the choppiest political periods in its history. Since early 2020, she has served three prime ministers and four culture secretaries and navigated an 18-month hiatus over the appointment of the watchdog’s chair.

She described new chair Lord Michael Grade, the outspoken former ITV executive, as “fantastic”. Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail’s parent company, was the initial frontrunner for the role but he withdrew from the race citing the Whitehall “blob” that was “really running the country”.

Ofcom still faces great uncertainty over planned revamps of the legal regimes it enforces.

One crucial part is the media bill, which guarantees the prominence of public service broadcasters on smart TVs. Dawes said the reforms were “urgently” needed to overhaul outdated broadcasting rules. But a promised draft bill has been delayed since the summer.

Meanwhile, the online safety bill, first proposed five years ago in an effort to reduce harmful content, remains stuck in parliament. Under House of Commons rules, the bill lapses if it is not passed by April.

“I am expecting that they will get the bill through. They need to get it through,” said Dawes. “Industry needs above all to understand what they need to do when. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Part of Dawes’s existing responsibilities involve enforcing the broadcasting code, which places constraints on all television news outlets. Asked whether she thought Channel 4 News and GB News, accused of adopting left-leaning and right-leaning stances respectively, were truly impartial, Dawes said: “It’s very important that we have a plural media landscape and impartiality doesn’t mean that everything has to be balanced equally.”

Ofcom has a more far-reaching role directly supervising the BBC, which Dawes described as “central” to Britain’s news landscape. “I think it can be very difficult for [the BBC] because they’re trying to please everybody,” she said.

Still, she added, the corporation could significantly improve its handling of complaints, since viewers did not know how to navigate the system. “I know they’ve heard this message.” 

Ofcom has also been monitoring recent dynamics in the telecoms industry, following more people reporting difficulties paying for mobile and broadband services after most operators introduced inflation-linked price increases in April.

Although the watchdog does not regulate retail prices, Dawes said she had told industry executives that they have a “moral responsibility to think very carefully about their price rises”.

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