The UK regulator can force social media sites to disclose algorithms

Twitter, TikTok and other big social media sites could be forced to disclose the codes behind their feeds to prevent young people from receiving messages that push them to the limit, Britain’s media regulator has said.

Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes told the Financial Times that she was growing concerned about evidence suggesting newsfeeds are exacerbating divisions in society, while the algorithms that determine what users see do little receive public scrutiny.

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

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

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

Dawes already regulates UK-based video-sharing sites like TikTok and OnlyFans and has hired dozens of staff in anticipation of the long-stalled online safety bill that would further empower 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 “hellscape” emerging on lax moderation platforms. Dawes planned to meet the social media group’s executive team at an upcoming trip to the US, but nothing has been postponed since the Tesla billionaire took control and vacated his top ranks.

“It’s very important for any social media platform to be confident that it’s still able to protect the public,” Dawes of Musk said of Musk’s turbulent start on Twitter.

She said it’s important to find out why social media platforms are driving “big polarity,” noting that one direction of investigation would examine algorithms that amplify “emotional responses” to messages and potentially lead users “into an echo chamber.” .

The scientific evidence is far from definitive. However, preliminary research by Ofcom found that people who use social media most often to access news are less likely than those who use television and newspapers to correctly identify important facts to have more dislike for people with different political views and showed less trust in democratic institutions.

“We think the starting point is transparency,” Dawes said, referring to possible recommendations. “So maybe it’s not about making rules, it’s about asking for more transparency or giving the regulator a chance to shine a light [on] how these feeds and algorithms work.”

Dawes, an economist and a former Whitehall Mandarin, took the helm as Ofcom entered one of the most troubled political periods in its history. Since early 2020, she has served three prime ministers and four culture ministers, taking an 18-month hiatus over appointing the watchdog chair.

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

Ofcom still faces a great deal of uncertainty about planned revisions to the legislation it enforces.

A crucial part is the Media Bill, which guarantees the visibility of public broadcasters on Smart TVs. Dawes said the reforms were “urgently” needed to overhaul outdated broadcasting rules. But a promised bill has been delayed since the summer.

Meanwhile, the Online Safety Bill, first proposed five years ago to reduce harmful content, is stuck in Parliament. Under House of Commons rules, if the law is not passed by April, it will lapse.

“I’m assuming the bill will pass. You have to go through with it,” Dawes said. “Above all, the industry needs to understand what it needs to do and when. There is much to do.”

Dawes’ existing responsibilities include enforcing the Broadcasting Act, which imposes restrictions on all television news channels. Asked if Channel 4 News and GB News, who have been accused of taking left-wing and right-wing positions respectively, were genuinely impartial, Dawes said: “It’s very important that we have a pluralistic media landscape, and impartiality means that not everything has to be balanced.”

Ofcom has a wider role in directly monitoring the BBC, which Dawes described as “central” to the UK news landscape. “I think it can be very difficult for [the BBC] because they’re trying to please everyone,” she said.

Still, she added, since viewers don’t know how to navigate the system, the company can greatly improve its handling of complaints. “I know you heard this news.”

Ofcom has also been keeping an eye on recent momentum in the telecoms industry, with more people reporting difficulties paying for mobile and broadband services after most operators introduced inflation-linked price increases in April.

Although the regulator doesn’t regulate retail prices, Dawes said she has told industry executives they have a “moral responsibility to think very carefully about their price increases.” The UK regulator can force social media sites to disclose algorithms

Adam Bradshaw

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