The Canadian government sharply criticized the tech megafirm Meta on August 21 2023 for continuing to bar Facebook users in the country from accessing online news on the platform amid a devastating series of wildfires.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knocked the platform during a press conference addressing the fires, praising both national news outlets and residents affected by the fires for sharing information with one another.
“That’s why it is so inconceivable that a company like Facebook is choosing to put corporate profits ahead of ensuring that local news organizations can get up to date information to Canadians and reach them where Canadians spend a lot of their time — online, on social media, on Facebook,” Trudeau added. “Facebook made billions of dollars in profits over the past years, including off of Canadians.”
Trudeau then made reference to the Online News Act, a bill passed in June 2023 that will require Meta and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to pay the country’s news organizations for hosting their content online.
After the bill’s passage, Meta retaliated not only by stopping access to news for Candian users but by cutting off funding for a fellowship program with the Canadian Press news agency.
“In a larger picture that’s bad for democracy,” Trudeau said. “Democracy depends on people being able to trust high-quality journalism of all sort of different perspectives and points of view. But right now in an emergency situation where up-to-date local information is more important than ever, Facebook’s putting corporate profits ahead of peoples’ safety, ahead of supporting quality local journalism.”
In July 2023, the tech company posted a net profit of $7.79 billion for the second fiscal quarter.
As of August 21 2023, there were reportedly 1,037 wildfires burning across Canada; around 30,000 people were forced to evacuate a spate of fires in British Columbia alone.
Meta has responded by saying that it has enabled the “Safety Check” option for Canadian users, allowing them to mark themselves as “safe” from the fires as needed; the company claimed that this also allows them to seek out factual information during the crisis, while also having access to government agencies’ Facebook and Instagram pages.
“We have been transparent and have made it clear to the Canadian government that the legislation misrepresents the value news outlets receive when choosing to use our platforms,” the company said in a statement. “The legislation is based on the incorrect premise that Meta benefits unfairly from news content shared on our platforms, when the reverse is true.”
Predictably, disinformation purveyors have taken advantage of the information vacuum to push their own conspiracy theories; as the news agency France24 reported:
On TikTok, a video already viewed almost 20,000 times, claims the fires in Nova Scotia were set “on purpose to push a climate change agenda.”
One article speculates that since 90 percent of Alberta’s fires could be “human-caused,” there is a possibility that “ecoterrorists” may be behind them.
Other theories push the idea that Bill Gates or other alleged “evil actors” are behind the fires, said Eric Kennedy, a coordinator for the Disaster and Emergency Management program at York University in Toronto.
“Sometimes the simple stories are very appealing,” Kennedy told Global News. “Sometimes it’s about fitting into an existing world view and making things make sense within that paradigm.”
In May 2022, whistleblowers within the company accused Meta of blocking access to Australian pages for government agencies and emergency services in February 2021 as part of a similar ban on news by the platform in response to the passage of the News Media Bargaining Code.
“The motivation was pretty clear in terms of why they did the Australian takedown and how they did it,” attorney Andrew Bakaj, who represented the whistleblower, told the Guardian after his clients came forward. “So I think that having experienced that and seeing that, the whistleblowers felt that it was time to come forward to set the record straight for the Australian people.”
According to the newspaper:
During the shutdown multiple employees outside the team tried to raise the alarm about the blocking of pages other than news, but the screenshots of conversations in the submission show they were either ignored or placated, even when proposing simple technical solutions that would have quickly restored the wrongly blocked pages.
Meta has refused to comment on the allegations made in the submission.
The Australian government would go on to negotiate to exempt Facebook from the code on the provision that it made agreements to compensate “enough” media companies in the country. According to the whistleblowers, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg sent an email congratulating employees on the outcome.
“We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community around the world, while achieving what might be the best possible outcome in Australia,” he said.
Update 8/25/2023, 1:52 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect reports on the spread of disinformation concerning the wildfires in Canada. — ag