In the media pluralism policies of liberal nation states, access to diverse news sources is widely regarded as key to the maintenance of an informed citizenry and healthy democracy. This assumption, and its relation to the risks of concentrated media power, underpins media diversity and media pluralism – or anti-concentration – laws and policy across the world.

Yet the evolving mix of curated (human or machine edited) and algorithmic (computer generated) news is stretching our understanding of media pluralism, and in this project, we are seeking to understand these changes.

In our view the implications of these shifts are having a profound impact on our news diets.

A combination of factors including network infrastructure, recommendation algorithms and personalisation, strong and weak ties in social networks (and related ideas of ‘filter bubbles and echo chambers’) all may have an impact on how people discover or access news, how deeply they engage with it, and then how it shapes knowledge.

In recent times ideas of regulation itself are being reassessed in the platform governance space. We can see this in a series of competition law investigations in the European Union in relation to first Google and then Facebook, along with high fines, which we interpret as clear evidence of these shifts. Prior to that, the European Commission imposed a 13-billion-euro fine on Apple Corporation. Appearances by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before US Congressional hearings and the European Commission also underscore a new phase of regulation.

For Andrew Keen, in his book How to Fix the Future, these developments signal that ‘regulation is, indeed, innovation’. Keen argues that state regulation needs to look to the innovative trends and legislation in the European Union, which has demonstrated a clear desire to rein in what he sees as the hegemony of US corporations.

In Australia, the role of digital platforms in the supply of news is the subject of a two-year inquiry by the national competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The inquiry was one of several by-products of a wave of legislative and policy change in 2017 which included the repeal of Australia’s remaining cross-media ownership laws. While there are still some sector-specific ownership and control rules, they are limited in number as well as in scope, applying only to legacy media of commercial television, commercial radio and associated (print) newspapers.

The review by the ACCC, and the possibility of a regulatory intervention using competition law, is of great significance. In addition to considering aspects of market power in relation to advertising, the inquiry directly confronts the role of search engines, aggregators and social media platforms in the current news environment.  The Issues Paper released in February 2018 noted that the inquiry would consider ‘the potential impact of big data technologies and the use of algorithms by key digital platforms on media diversity’.

The concept of brands is an important and enduring one, and the role of brands is important in our considerations of news media pluralism and diversity. Audience attraction to news brands has an influence on how news it sought out and discovered. News can be found on the online sites of legacy or ‘born digital’ brands, or via social media and search engines and destination portals; and these pathways are shaped by education, age, geography, culture and other factors such as political knowledge and pre-disposition.

Algorithmic processing of news content has destabilised old certainties of distribution, and made access and exposure to news less transparent. As citizens and consumers we rely on news for decisions we make for political knowledges and elections, and for everyday purchases. Therefore, to understand online news distribution there is an urgent need to develop literacies in relation to the idea of algorithmic accountability. To paraphrase Nick Couldry, our “technologies of connection and economies of attention are on a collision course”. In the project we are aiming to build the knowledge base of these transformations so that policy makers, citizens and consumers are better placed to make informed choices.

One central concern in current academic and public policy debates is how personalized recommendations used by search engines, social media and also more traditional news media impact the realization of media and information diversity. The algorithmic filtering and adaption of online content to personal preferences is often associated with a decrease in the diversity of information to which users are exposed fears about (e.g. ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers’). However, filtering and recommender systems are not all similar and their impact is not beyond human control. At least in principle, recommendation systems can also be designed to stimulate more diverse exposure, and to expose viewers to opposing viewpoints and contextual information. While companies like Facebook and Google have reacted to recent debates on ‘fake news’ with steps in this direction by introducing features that promote ‘diverse perspectives’, questions remain on the commercial and strategic incentives of platforms and news providers, the principles that such ‘diversity sensitive design’ should be based, and how policy-makers may ‘nudge’ companies to promote more diverse exposure.

See Helberger, N., Karppinen, K., & D’Acunto, L. (2018). Exposure Diversity as a Design Principle for Recommender Systems. Information, Communication & Society 21(2), 191-207.

Although the European Union can be seen as a forerunner in the regulation of platforms and technology companies, it’s decision-making regarding issues related to media and communication is peculiarly complex. In issues such as data protection and the competition policy, the EU has been able to pass directives that have far-reaching consequences even for companies outside Europe. In more traditional media and cultural policy, however, the EU does not have much direct competence to intervene in issues related to media pluralism, apart from declarations and pronouncements. Partly because of this, the EU has attempted to promote media pluralism by means of ‘soft law’ approaches, such as measurement and monitoring. For example, the Media Pluralism Monitor tool has been developed to identify risks to media pluralism in EU member states. Although this remains one of the most sophisticated tools to assess different aspect of media pluralism, it has also inevitably highlighted the difficulties of defining and operationalizing the complex and contested concept of ‘media pluralism’ – and the different national policy traditions and political connotations associated with the concept.

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The public is increasingly relying on digital intermediary platforms for news and public affairs information, and it is in these changing conditions that search firms, aggregators, and social media are becoming more important. These contributors to the news/information environment should therefore be taken into account in future Public Service Media (PSM) policies; data-driven journalism is one manifestation of the changing role of PSM in these futures. The role and contribution of PSM values in media pluralism policies, then, are now even more important as they have been in the past as audiences turn to a fragmented, algorithmically underwritten news and information environment.

Across social media platforms, there are a growing number of users who have the communication prowess to garner large audiences of fans and followers. These users are known as social influencers and are often highly skilled at understanding the operating mechanisms of the platforms on which they operate, how to communicate with their followers and fans, and media production broadly. Popular social influencers can earn large incomes through product endorsements and advertising revenue from the platforms on which they host their content. Typically, these users are endorsing brands and services and do so through a ‘lifestyle’ presentation approach to embed these products on our everyday social media lives.

As social influencers develop large audiences, they are creating social networks and have the potential to distort how news and information flows between media users. Their highly popular media content is then compounded by the effects of algorithmically calculated recommender systems, for example the ‘Up Next’ mechanism on YouTube or the ‘For You’ listings on Spotify. Social influencers are focussed on creating popular and commercially viable content, which of course aligns with hyper-commercial social media platforms. In this environment, populism rules and matters of general public concern and informed citizenry are less important.