Social Media: News - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 11th January 2018.

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Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Crossbench 3:37 pm, 11th January 2018

I declare an interest as a series producer at ITN Productions. I too thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for securing this timely debate.

I am concerned by the rapid decline of quality journalism in this country and across the western world. The way social media platforms operate means that factually based journalism is under attack as never before. That is bad enough, but the way that news and views are disseminated on these platforms is creating an echo chamber. It excludes diverse voices and exaggerates the opinions people already hold: this is the filter bubble. I fear that it causes increasing political polarisation, which we see across the western world—a popularism fed by social media, where emotion triumphs and reasoned discourse is defeated.

The problem lies in the failure of social media platforms such as Facebook to value the quality of the content their users are viewing. Their main concern is the number of eyeballs and the length of time they engage with the platform, so that they are exposed to the adverts that almost entirely finance these companies. As these platforms become the dominant medium by which a whole new generation receives its news, this must be of the greatest concern to noble Lords. Of course, listening to your friends, or sympathetic points of view, is what we all do and what humans have always done. We want to rely on people we know and trust. But people inevitably pass on information that amuses or shocks them, rather than wholesome pieces of impartial information.

This has been exacerbated in the case of Facebook by the changes it has made to its algorithms. In June 2016, one such change meant that the “likes” of friends and families superseded the users’ own preferred pages, the aim being to engage the user ever more deeply with others on the platform and keep them viewing for as long as possible. However, it is very difficult for independent researchers outside the platforms to find out about these changes in algorithms and their effects. The information is closely guarded by the social media companies and all research is carried out in-house with an inevitable conflict of interest, which discredits the findings.

Independent research has been carried out into the way users consume news on Facebook. Dr Shan Wang of Harvard University found that half the people surveyed saw no news in their first 10 posts, and that was a very loose term for news: it included celebrity gossip and sports news. Only 1% of the users had news stories as their majority content. Of the news that they received, more than half came from friends and only 4% directly from the publishers.

It is a far cry from what is now called the “legacy media”, or the quality newspapers in which specialist journalists curate content. Some of this quality journalism does indeed appear on the platforms, but it is taken out of context and is just another piece of disconnected information among a raucous raft of considerably less reliable sources. Facebook’s “instant article” is a method by which the platform exposes users to a range of news outlets. However, it is hard to discern the provenance of the information. High-quality publishers are placed alongside websites peddling rumour and lies from some very dubious sources. Not only is much high-quality journalism suffering as newspapers’ advertising revenue reduces as it transfers to the platforms; the impact of such content is being dramatically diminished.

I am also concerned about the effect of user preferences on the role of British broadcast journalism in this environment. The temptation must be to loosen the constraints of impartiality in a world where opinion is king, but I would argue that Ofcom and the BBC must hold fast so that impartial content can be shared and passed on to friends and family. These sources of trusted and fact-checked information underpin our democracy and secure its future. Recent research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford shows that impartial broadcast news in this country creates trust and acts as a bulwark against polarisation. It compares very favourably with the lack of trust Americans have in their media, which has no place for impartiality and is driven by editorial bias.

The 2017 Conservative Party manifesto declared:

“We will be consistent in our approach to regulation of online and offline media.”

We must ensure that the filter bubble does not cut the people of this country off from diverse news, opposing views and even opinions that might offend them. If social media platforms do not take more responsibility for their content, alter their algorithms accordingly and go much further in curating their content, I fear some kind of third-party regulation will be required to intervene in the closed world of social media platforms.