Nerida O’Loughlin to be named ACMA chair

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday September 12, 2017

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The former Digital Transformation Agency interim CEO has been busy ensuring a smooth transition for incoming chief Gavin Slater. Doing so effectively put on hold the primary career of Nerida O’Loughlin, whose official title is still deputy secretary, special projects at the Department of Communications and the Arts.

Now O’Loughlin (pictured) is free to take up the chair of Australian Communications and Media Authority, that, we hear, was held open for her availability.

By taking up the ACMA reins, O’Loughlin will get to finish the other side of the job she started with her departmental review of ACMA last year.

Nerida O’Loughlin has long been considered the favourite since shortly after Chris Chapman departed early last year, with the announcement confirming her move expected later today — unless bumped by media reform in the Senate. The ACMA chair is a five-year appointment and O’Loughlin is expected to commence in the role on October 16, taking over from acting chair Richard Bean. Current acting deputy chair James Cameron is expected to be appointed to that position, leaving three vacant board positions to be filled at a later date.

Trust versus the rise of algorithms

Bean did not waste the opportunities of the position, sparking conversations about Australian storytelling, 5G standards and spectrum reform.

But perhaps the least reported, and the most interesting given the government’s agenda this week includes coming up with communications regulation for the Marriage Law Postal Survey, is his comments about the regulation of speech through media diversity rules.

In particular, this section on the rise of algorithms and the implications on trust should be particularly relevant for public officials who rely on trusted information reaching the community:

Some might say that an individual has always had the ability to select what he or she reads or hears, but technology now assists the selection of ‘trusted’ sources of news and opinion in new ways that it’s important we understand.

And trust in reliable ‘sources of truth’ has always been an important consideration in understanding how influence may be exercised.

Is the influence of well-recognised and trusted brands—mastheads or individual respected journalists or commentators—reinforced or diminished as alternative sources of news and commentary become more readily available? I think that is an open question.

In the online environment, with a ready availability of news sources, reliable sources of news may become increasingly differentiated and highly valued.

In its 2011 Digital Australians research, the ACMA found that the perceived trustworthiness or credibility, and fairness, of online news sites depended on whether or not the source was an established brand.

Where traditional brands also had an online presence, the same level of credibility was attached to their online content.

But the rise of algorithms adds complexity to the news supply process and our assessment of the influence of the trusted brands.

Algorithms, whether based on user preference or behaviour, or upon a programmed understanding of what news is important, have an impact on the form and type of news that a citizen sees.

In the face of allegations of liberal bias, Facebook recently moved to accelerate the automation of its Trending news section, removing its editorial team. Unfortunately, a few days later Facebook promoted a patently false news item from, as Slate described it, ‘a dubious right-wing propaganda site’, that Fox News had sacked Megan Kelly for being a ‘traitor’.

The sacked team members were mostly New York journalists, and they were, in fact, replaced with other human overseers who were to check that the items the algorithms chose were linked to the real world—but not make editorial decisions—and who failed to realise the Kelly story was bogus.

This example raises an interesting question about if and how social media platforms will change the extent to which we are exposed to diverse opinions and, more importantly, how transparent the impact of these ‘filters’ might be.

I would also observe that while in the past we may have been concerned about media proprietors deliberately using their platforms to influence audiences, these algorithm-based services are not so clearly characterised in those terms. They could arguably be presented as simply being a service designed to deliver to an audience exactly what the audience wants.

If I can summarise these broad themes, they all provide evidence of pressures, pulling in different directions and with different implications for how we identify which are the influential media and how influence in news and opinion is being exercised—with consequent implications for the use of influence as a guide in applying differential regulation.

Earlier this year, the ACMA commissioned for its own use an analysis of media influence in a contemporary communications environment—and I want to thank Peter Leonard and Rob Nicholls for their contribution.

The focus of this work was to look at the market trends that are affecting where and how influence is exerted, and to consider some factors that might be brought to bear when attempting to measure it.

What emerges is the need for an approach to assessing influence that looks at how news and current affairs programs in particular exert influence over public opinion in three important ways.

  • One is the agenda-setting process—identifying what news is selected as newsworthy to be reported and where, when and how often that news is carried.
  • Another is the process of framing of news—taking account of how the news story itself is framed for consumption (for example, as factual, commentary or analysis).
  • And finally, what you might call the user zone processes—whether—and, if so, how—an individual citizen curates what news they choose to receive, or a provider, using data analytics or editorial choice, curates the news that a user sees.

We’ve just been talking about algorithms. More broadly, the use of data analytics to target audiences is obviously a significant new phenomenon, and one which may play out in a number of ways—enabling, for example, hyper-specialisation or hyper-localism.

We see pressure for localism on a number of fronts, and should consider its impact in an era of populist politics.

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