Understanding the influence of social media as gateways to news

Mar 25th '24

Online intermediaries, such as social media, search engines and other online aggregators exert a significant influence on the news stories people consume, according to new Ofcom research.


Nearly two-thirds (64%) of UK adults use online intermediaries to access news, with Meta – the company which owns Facebook and Instagram – being the third largest source of news in the UK after the BBC and ITV. Seven in ten 16–24-year-olds (71%) in the UK now use social media to keep up with news, and this does not appear to change as they get older.


Building on existing evidence base, 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.


of 16–24-year-olds use social media to keep up with news


Using cutting-edge eye-tracking technology, Ofcom found that the ranking of news content articles in a social media feed has a substantial impact on the amount of time people spend viewing, reading and engaging with it. News items at the top of the feed were around 4.5 times more likely to be viewed than those at the bottom, and seven times more likely to be remembered.


Although social media platforms expose people to many different news outlets, our analysis also shows they tend to serve up a narrower range of topics than people might otherwise encounter on traditional news websites. Ofcom also know from existing research that people who get their news via social media may see less diversity of viewpoints, as well as more polarising and false content, which tends to drive high user engagement.


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.


Ofcom also found that people who use online intermediaries generally have a limited understanding of the role they play in curating the news that appears on their feed. In addition, our research showed that making meaningful changes to people’s news feeds on social media is a complex task, and participants did not consider the tools that allow users to control the content they see to be sufficiently user-friendly.


Next steps

The findings will help inform Ofcom’s review of public service media, 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.


It will also feed into Ofcom’s ongoing 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.


Source:  Office of Communication (Ofcom)


About Ofcom

Ofcom is the regulator for the communications services that we use and rely on each day.



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