Ofcom calls for stricter social media scrutiny to combat fake news

A report by the regulator found people were unable to distinguish between trusted news sources and other posts.

The argument for independent regulation of social media amid concerns over fake news has never been stronger, the chief executive of Ofcom has said.

The watchdog, which has previously taken a more cautious stance on social media regulation over concerns of free speech, said social networks should face greater scrutiny after a study suggested some users were unable to distinguish between trusted news sources and other posts.

Chief executive Sharon White wrote in The Times: “Online companies need to be more accountable when it comes to curating and policing the content on their platforms, where this risks harm to the public.”

Ofcom said people were aware of fake news but did not necessarily know how to spot it, building “a very complicated picture of the current news landscape that presents a range of challenges to how people understand and navigate the news today”.

“In light of this complex environment for news, we consider that the argument for independent regulatory oversight of the activities of online companies has never been stronger,” the regulator concluded in its report.

People say they feel ‘bombarded’ by the amount of information on social networks (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Ofcom, which currently deals with the broadcasting, telecommunications and postal sectors, is planning to outline “further thoughts” in the autumn, although the Government has overall say on whether regulation is required.

Twenty-two people took part in a week-long study, with Ofcom looking into their news consumption habits.

The majority chose online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to access news, using the convenience of scrolling and swiping on newsfeeds instead of proactively searching for news outside social media apps.

Some respondents said that a Facebook page with a logo was enough for them to consider a post to be from an “official” trustworthy source, while others assumed posts shared by friends were reliable.

The number of shares, likes or retweets also influenced how important the group thought a story was.

Despite the findings, people said they trusted newspapers and television news broadcasts more than articles posted online.

The body’s conclusion comes as Facebook said they would not be banning “fake news” articles from the site.

In two posts on Twitter, they said banning pages that some people consider to be fake news would be “contrary to the basic principles of free speech”.

It continued: “Instead, we demote individual posts etc that are reported by FB users and rated as false by fact checkers. This means they lose around 80% of any future views. We also demote Pages and domains that repeatedly share false news.”

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