Before fleeing about 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) south of Yellowknife by car, Agnes Grandejambe looked to social media to find out almost everything she needed to know about escaping the encroaching wildfires. Some from official government accounts. Mostly from friends and family, including an offer of help from her First Nation band. But not from news media sites. That’s because Canadian news outlets — including the only one she trusts — have been blocked on Facebook and Instagram as a result of a dispute with the national government. “People were posting how close the fires were. And we knew the highway kept opening and closing, so we said, ‘OK, we’ll just go,’” said the 65-year-old who is a longtime resident of the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Her preferred media site, Yellowknife-based Cabin Radio, has been doing its best to get around the ban with help from the station’s audience members who have been taking news from the Cabin Radio website — filled with the latest details — then snapping a screenshot and sharing that image on Facebook and Instagram so that their friends, family and others are more likely to see the information.
“Our audience did an incredible job of undermining that ban on our behalf,” said Ollie Williams, editor of Cabin Radio, speaking by phone after relocating west of Yellowknife to Fort Simpson. “They found workarounds and they got our coverage out to each other, regardless of Meta trying to keep that from happening.” For their part, reporters have been gathering news and talking to first responders from their cars while themselves having to evacuate. Williams has been using a device for satellite internet service. And the station’s general manager is sharing news with his team while volunteering as a bus driver carrying evacuees to the airport. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, announced earlier this month it would keep its promise to block news content in Canada on its platforms — everything from local outlets like Cabin Radio to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — in response to a new law that requires tech giants to pay publishers for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.
Meta stood by its decision, pointing out in a statement issued about the wildfires that people in Canada can continue to use the apps “to connect with their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations.” A government minister called on Meta to lift the ban on news media. “What Meta is doing is totally unacceptable,” said Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez on a call with reporters. “I warned them during conversations in the past of the risk of blocking news.” “I’m asking to go back on their decision and allow people to have access to news and information in Canada,” he said. Meta has been alone in its action. Google’s owner Alphabet has also said it plans to remove news links in protest of the new law, although it hasn’t yet followed through. The Online News Act, passed in late June after lengthy debate, doesn’t take effect until later this year.
“Meta has preemptively installed a ban that is now having dangerous consequences,” Williams said. The editor said he doesn’t put all of the blame on Meta for its arguments with the Canadian government, but local outlets like his had no say in that dispute and how it’s governed. “More importantly, nobody asked our audience,” Williams said. “So the people being affected by this and the people producing the coverage, trying to help, had no voice at any part in that process. The outcome is a stupid and dangerous ban.” Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and Media, warns that Meta’s blocking of news runs the risk of misinformation taking the place of trusted and vetted content during a natural disaster, at a risk of people’s lives. For years, platforms like Facebook pushed journalists to rely on the platform while profiting from news sharing, he said. But now they are trying to recreate themselves as newsfree platforms to get away from some of the responsibility of compensating journalists or being treated as a media entity.
Woolley adds that the loss of reliable news won’t be felt equally. Marginalized communities, people of color and low-income families — who may rely on social media for information when they can’t afford a newspaper subscription, for example — will be impacted the most. It was when Grandejambe decided to leave Yellowknife, packing two vehicles along with four of her adult children and her teenage grandson. She was offered assistance and advice from fellow members of the Behdzi Ahda First Nation, based in the Artic community of Colville Lake where she was born. An official evacuation order came soon after. But it hasn’t always been clear where to go and what to do. She spoke by phone from a motel in Edmonton, Alberta, after a long journey that included an hours-long wait for gas near Fort Providence — a problem that’s been thoroughly covered by Cabin Radio. Her family was still working to get registered at Edmonton’s Expo convention center that has opened up to evacuees from the Northwest Territories. While annoyed by the difficulty of getting good information and what she felt was poor planning by government authorities ahead of the evacuation order, Grandejambe said she was happy her family was safe. “They’re good. Just calm, cool,” she said. “They’ve been taught since they were small, don’t stress over something that’s not in our control.”