Over the past two weeks, as Canada struggles with almost 400 wildfires on the West Coast, Canadians are unable to find direct news sources on their Facebook or Instagram feeds.
Since August 1, Meta has banned news access for Canadian users across the two social media platforms, with article links from news outlets no longer available for viewing or sharing. Wildfire evacuees have reported facing difficulties in communicating critical information to each other. Residents of British Columbia and Northwest Territories have resorted to posting screencaps of news sites to update their neighbors on Facebook.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls for Meta to reverse its policy, accusing the company of “putting profits ahead of people’s safety,” Meta stands firm that it is simply complying with national legislation.
Earlier this summer, Canada passed the Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18, which would require tech companies to pay newsrooms for sharing their journalism. Trudeau’s Liberal government views Bill C-18 as a means to seek fair compensation from digital platforms that profit from being intermediaries of news content. The aim is to support the nation’s flailing news industry, which has seen the closure of 500 news organizations since 2008 with the rise of social media. 45% of Canadians find their news on social media, and Facebook and Google now earn 80% of digital advertising revenue in Canada.
In a statement announcing the end of news availability in Canada, Meta countered that its platforms do not have an uneven advantage over news companies, arguing that news outlets “voluntarily share content on Facebook and Instagram to expand their audiences and help their bottom line.”
While Meta previously relented on a similar news block in Australia after negotiations with the government, at present there appears to be no reconciliation in sight between Meta and the Canadian government.
For Canadians affected by the wildfire, Facebook and Instagram have activated a “Safety Check,” while government sources, which are not counted as news, remain available for sharing. Still, evacuees worry that the stand-off could cost them their safety, especially with the elevated risks of misinformation on Facebook and Instagram in the absence of reputable new sources.
The crisis brings to light a power struggle unfolding between the tech market, the government, and independent news publishers, provoking a number of questions: What are the risks of social media monopolizing a society’s media consumption? Is it possible to level the playing field, and is it the government’s role to enforce it? Who should pay for our media use — and who is paying the price in reality?