UK regulator could force social media sites to reveal algorithms


Twitter, TikTok and other major social media sites could be forced to disclose the codes behind their feeds to prevent young people from receiving information that pushes them to extremes, the UK media regulator has said.

Dame Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom, told the Financial Times she was growing increasingly concerned about evidence suggesting news feeds are deepening divisions in society, while algorithms determining what users see are little examined by the public.

“The more you consume your news on social media, the more likely you are to have more polarized opinions and find it harder to deal with the opinions of others,” Dawes said, referring to research published by the watchdog on Wednesday. “It’s a real concern.”

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

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

Dawes already regulates UK-based video-sharing sites such as TikTok and OnlyFans and has hired dozens of staff ahead of the long-stalled online safety bill that would allow Ofcom to punish Internet companies that fail to protect users.

The review comes as Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter has heightened concerns about a “hellish landscape” emerging on platforms with lax moderation. Dawes was planning to meet with the social media group’s management team on an upcoming trip to the United States, but nothing has been postponed since billionaire Tesla took over and eliminated its top ranks.

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

She said it was essential to understand why social media platforms lead to “great polarity”, noting that a line of inquiry would examine algorithms that “amplify the emotional reaction” to news and potentially lead users ” in an echo chamber”.

The academic evidence is far from definitive. However, preliminary research by Ofcom found that people who used social media most often to access information were less likely than those who used television and newspapers frequently to identify highlights correctly, to feel more antipathy towards people who held different political views and showed less confidence in democratic institutions. .

“We think the starting point is transparency,” Dawes said, referring to potential recommendations. “So maybe it’s not about making rules, it’s about demanding more transparency or giving the regulator the opportunity to shed some light. [on] how these flows and algorithms work.

Dawes, an economist and former Whitehall mandarin, took the helm as Ofcom entered one of the most turbulent political times in its history. Since the start of 2020, she has served three prime ministers and four culture secretaries and navigated an 18-month hiatus on the watchdog president’s appointment.

She described new chairman Lord Michael Grade, the former ITV outspoken executive, as “fantastic”. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail’s parent company, was the initial favorite for the role but pulled out of the running citing the Whitehall ‘blob’ who ‘really ran the country’.

Ofcom continues to face great uncertainty over planned overhauls of the legal regimes it administers.

A crucial one is the Media Bill, which guarantees the pre-eminence of public service broadcasters over smart TVs. Dawes said the reforms were “urgently” needed to overhaul outdated broadcast rules. But a promised bill has been delayed since the summer.

Meanwhile, the Online Safety Bill, first proposed five years ago with the aim of curbing harmful content, remains stuck in parliament. Under House of Commons rules, the bill lapses if it is not passed in April.

“I expect them to pass the bill. They have to succeed,” Dawes said. “Above all, the industry needs to understand what it needs to do and when. There is a lot of work to do.

Part of Dawes’ current responsibilities include enforcing the Broadcasting Code, which imposes constraints on all television news outlets. Asked if she thought Channel 4 News and GB News, accused of taking left-wing and right-wing positions respectively, were truly impartial, Dawes said: ‘It’s very important that we have a plural media landscape and impartiality does not mean that everything should be balanced equally.

Ofcom has a bigger role in directly overseeing the BBC, which Dawes described as “central” to the UK media landscape. “I think it can be very difficult for [the BBC] because they try to please everyone,” she said.

Still, she added, the company could significantly improve its handling of complaints because viewers didn’t know how to navigate the system. “I know they heard that message.”

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

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


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