Personalised News – Implications for the democratic role of the digital media, user rights and public information policy

On the web, news media are profiling and targeting news users in order to serve users with news stories and advertisements that match their individual interests. For example, the New York Times has a section on its homepage titled  “Recommended for you”. The section contains an automatically created selection of articles that are presumed to be of particular relevance for you. Elsewhere on its website, the publisher explains that “recommendations are based on the NYTimes content you have viewed recently. This information is available only to you.” This recommendation system is a form of news personalisation. Other news outlet, such as BBC News online in the UK, de Volkskrant in the Netherlands, or newer players like Facebook, are experimenting with the personalisation of news content as well.

News personalisation helps media companies to survive in a competitive digital environment and it may help individual media users to manage the information overload. But this development also raises questions among media professionals, media users, and researchers from all disciplines. During a discussion organised by the Guardian, an editor remarked the importance of transparency about news personalisation, even though another discussant questioned whether algorithms can be explained in a meaningful way. A reader commented that he or she saw personalisation as holding potential benefits for the users, but also found that the debate regarding user data, objectivity, and filter bubbles not properly firmed up yet. And on a panel that we organised during the  Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2015, leading thinkers in this area, such as Neil Thurman, Neil Richards and Maurits Kaptein, highlighted the various trade-offs involved, between user orientation, the mission and editorial standards of the news-media and users’  rights and fundamental freedoms.

From a legal perspective, the development towards more and more personalised news raises questions about the implications for individual rights, the democratic role of the digital media, and information law and policy. Natali Helberger raises some of them in her inaugural speech “Media, users and algorithms: towards a new balance”: How does the personalisation of news affects media users’ trust in the integrity of editorial content, and their ability to distinguish editorial content from advertising? Is the collection of personal data relating to users’ reading behaviour lawful in all cases, and can readers still exercise their right to freely receive information and ideas? Can we envision a new public role for the media in which they actively serve news users with diverse and important content, to prevent users from just reading about entertainment, sports, and the weather?

In order to answer such questions, this research project combines legal research with empirical research by communication scientists and political theory. For one part of the project communication science postdocs research user attitudes towards news personalisation, as well as economic and ethical considerations on part of the media themselves. Informed by these findings, in another part of the project two legal PhD candidates investigate rules on editorial integrity, and users’ rights of freedom of expression and privacy in the context of personalised news. Finally, the projects formulates a new normative framework through which news personalisation can be assed, and explores  to what extent government could stimulate new media strategies for personalised, public interest content.

The project team collaborates with partners in and outside of academia. For the empirical research we closely work with the Personalised Communication project, a joint initiative by the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) and the Institute for Information Law. Next to that we work together with media companies to gather data and better understand the decisions that are made in the newsroom when personalising news.



Shrinking core? Exploring the differential agenda setting power of traditional and personalized news

Helberger, N.

Irion, K.

Möller, J.

Trilling, D.

Vreese, C.H. de

A shared issue agenda provides democracies with a set of topics that structure the public debate. The advent of personalized news media that use smart algorithms to tailor the news offer to the user challenges the established way of setting the agenda of such a common core of issues. This paper tests the effects of personalized news use on perceived importance of these issues in the common core. In particular we study whether personalized news use leads to a concentration at the top of the issue agenda or to a more diverse issue agenda with a long tail of topics. Based on a cross-sectional survey of a representative population sample (N=1556), we find that personalized news use does not lead to a small common core in which few topics are discussed extensively, yet there is a relationship between personalized news use and a preference for less discussed topics. This is a result of a specific user profile of personalized news users: younger, more educated news users are more interested in topics at the fringes of the common core and also make more use of personalized news offers. The results are discussed in the light of media diversity and recent advances in public sphere research.


Facebook is a new breed of editor: a social editor

Helberger, N.

Facebook’s approach to allowing, censoring or prioritising content that appears in the news feed has recently been the focus of much attention, both media and governmental. Professor Natali Helberger of the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam argues that we need to seek to understand the new kind of editorial role that Facebook is playing, in order to know how to tackle the questions it raises.


Facebook is a news editor: the real issues to be concerned about

Helberger, N.

Trilling, D.

LSE blog, 26 May 2016.

Facebook's use of human editors may bring comfort to some, but there are wider issues to do with editorial responsibility that need to be addressed.


Should we worry about filter bubbles?

Bodó, B.

Helberger, N.

Möller, J.

Trilling, D.

Vreese, C.H. de

Zuiderveen Borgesius, F.

<p> Some fear that personalised communication can lead to information cocoons or filter bubbles. For instance, a personalised news website could give more prominence to conservative or liberal media items, based on the (assumed) political interests of the user. As a result, users may encounter only a limited range of political ideas. We synthesise empirical research on the extent and effects of self-selected personalisation, where people actively choose which content they receive, and pre-selected personalisation, where algorithms personalise content for users without any deliberate user choice. We conclude that at present there is little empirical evidence that warrants any worries about filter bubbles.</p>


Merely Facilitating or Actively Stimulating Diverse Media Choices? Public Service Media at the Crossroad

Helberger, N.

Personalized recommendations provide new opportunities to engage with audiences and influence media choices. Should the public-service media use such algorithmic profiling and targeting to guide audiences and stimulate more diverse choices? And if they do, is this a brave new world we would like to live in? This article outlines new opportunities for the public-service media to fulfill their commitment to media diversity and highlights some of the ethical and normative considerations that will play a role. The article concludes with a call for a new body of “algorithmic media ethics.”


Nieuws à la carte

Helberger, N.

Interview in Het Parool van 2 januari 2015 over veranderende positie van de social media gebruiker.


'Personaliseren sites leidt tot manipulatie'

Helberger, N.

Interview verschenen in het Financieel Dagblad van 29 november 2014.


Media, users and algorithms: towards a new balance

Helberger, N.

Rede uitgesproken bij de aanvaarding van het ambt van hoogleraar Informatierecht, in het bijzonder met betrekking tot het gebruik van informatie, aan de Faculteit der Rechtsgeleerdheid van de Universiteit van Amsterdam op vrijdag 19 september 2014.

Zie ook:

In the digital media environment user attention is scarce and competition for ‘eyeballs’ is fierce. Profiling and targeting users with customized news and advertisements is widely seen as a solution, and part of a larger trend to invest in what the New York Times has called ‘smart new strategies for growing our audience’. The shift from public information intermediary to personal information service creates new dynamics but also new imbalances in the relationship between the media and their users. In my inaugural speech I will state that to restore the balance, the media and regulators in Brussels and The Hague need to develop a vision of how to deal with issues such as media user privacy, editorial integrity and more generally ‘fair algorithmic media practices’."