Evacuees from the devastating blazes threatening Yellowknife say the ongoing fight between Meta, the owner of Facebook, and Canada’s federal government over who should pay for news has made it harder to spread life-saving information about the wildfires in the Northwest Territories.
Delaney Poitras, who lives in Fort Smith, N.W.T., made the decision to leave her community a few hundred kilometres from the capital on Friday, and head to the larger community of Hay River where she arranged to stay with family on Saturday. But on Sunday, Hay River was hit with an urgent evacuation order, so the family decamped again.
“I’ve never been evacuated in my life, and to do it twice in 24 hours, it was scary,” she told CBC News from Leduc, Alta., where she and her family have been staying at an evacuation centre while they wait to check in to a hotel.
Poitras says it’s bad enough having to handle the logistics of getting out in a hurry and worrying about what might happen to her home town while she’s gone, but the situation has been made worse by the ongoing fight between Big Tech and the Canadian government over who should pay for news.
Bill C-18, which recently became law, forces large social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and others to compensate Canadian news publishers when their content is shared. Meta has pushed back against the law and made good on its threat to instead block news from being shared on its platforms in Canada.
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As a result, content from news providers like the CBC, local newspaper The Yellowknifer and digital broadcaster Cabin Radio is being blocked, which means people can’t get or share critical information from news sources on Facebook and Instagram, two of the most popular social media sites.
The debate over Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act, may be an academic one in many parts of Canada, but not in the North, where people are dealing with an unfolding natural disaster while suddenly being unable to use one of the most popular communication platforms to share information about wildfire locations and evacuation plans.
Poitras says social media is important where they live. “It’s how we all keep in touch.”
A live news conference covered by Cabin Radio and CBC on Wednesday evening announced the evacuation of Yellowknife, but it wasn’t shareable on Facebook, prompting users like Poitras and others to try to get around the block by posting screengrabs of information instead of direct links.
“It’s difficult to find the correct information to share to all the people that I have on Facebook,” she said, “but I try to do my best to make sure that it’s correct.”
The territorial government has provided the following information for residents:
Though she and others are trying to help, Poitras says it’s a flawed system that’s becoming dangerous.
“In our community, the protective services and the RCMP were going door to door. I guess some people … didn’t answer the door or just weren’t aware that this was even going on.”
‘Stupid and dangerous’
Ollie Williams, the editor of Cabin Radio, based in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., about 600 km west of the capital, says Meta’s move to ban news is “stupid and dangerous and clearly should not be in place.”
But he also blames the federal government for picking this fight in the first place.
“Clearly, I’m not a fan of news being banned, but I want to make very clear that I’m not a fan of anyone involved in it — and I think there are lots of actors.”
But Williams says he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well his audience has worked around the ban to get and share information.
Every night after his shift, he checks Facebook and Instagram and says “it’s just screengrab after screengrab after screengrab of our updates shared by our audience to their friends.”
Williams credits the audience for coming directly to their website, which he says has seen as much traffic in the past few days as it normally would in an entire year.
“Let’s not just sit here and complain about Meta and complain about the ban and say, ‘Well, this is stupid’ — it is. Let’s also say how heartening it is that there’s a wildfire situation and the audience, the people who consume the news, have just put Meta to one side and said ‘All right, well, that’s useless,’ and gone straight to the source.”
WATCH | Get out of Yellowknife quickly and safely, mayor advises:
Rebecca Alty, the mayor of Yellowknife, says crews are working hard on fire defences, but she is urging people to ‘take what you need’ and get out of the city.
Meta has faced pressure to loosen the ban due to the current situation. But in a statement to CBC News, the company says it’s sticking to its position — and notes that government sites and other sources that disseminate information aren’t subject to the ban.
“People in Canada are able to use Facebook and Instagram to connect to their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organisations,” said Meta spokesperson David Troya-Alvarez.
The company has also activated a function known as Safety Check that allows users to click a button to update their status and let their friends and family know they’re safe from the wildfires.
Safety Check was used for previous natural disasters, but Meta activated it for the Northwest Territory wildfires on Thursday.
WATCH | Those affected by wildfires frustrated they can’t find news on Meta’s platforms:
Fire evacuees say the block on Canadian news content on Facebook and Instagram makes it even harder to get crucial wildfire information. Many in Canada’s North rely on the platforms, and some are now looking for workarounds to share info.
Misinformation a worry, evacuee says
Northerners like Kelsey Worth say the situation is dangerous, not just because it’s hard to find and share information, but because in the vacuum left by news, misinformation seems to be spreading faster.
“When it comes to how far away the fire is, that’s definitely been a concern for everybody, because I know there’s been a lot of misinformation about where it is and what’s going on with it,” the Yellowknife resident told CBC News from the North Arm Territorial Park, where they stopped on their way out of town Thursday.
“I watch the satellite maps now because I can’t get an accurate number on where it’s at.”
She says cellular service is spotty in the territory at the best of times, and the blocking of reputable news on social media makes it even harder to share accurate information.
For instance, on Thursday morning, Worth said her parents told her they’d heard that the highway was closed at 10 a.m.
“But it wasn’t,” she said. “I mean, I drove through it about 11.”
WATCH | How Yellowknife is handling massive evacuation effort:
Almost 22,000 people have been ordered to evacuate Yellowknife, N.W.T., as wildfires are expected to reach the capital on Saturday, officials say. Here’s a look at the plans put in place to clear out the city.
Worth is one of many people sharing screenshots of news stories, something she wishes she didn’t have to do.
“I avoid saying where it comes from because the second you say it comes from a radio station or a news outlet, they block you,” she said, noting several friends have told her that they aren’t very aware of the situation in the territory.
“They don’t even know that we’re literally surrounded by fires.”
In an emailed statement, the government reiterated its stance on Thursday, telling CBC News that it is “deeply disappointed” Meta is continuing with its “irresponsible, unreasonable” policy of blocking news on its platforms.
“This includes Northern communities that rely on it as an information source,” a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said.
“More than ever, this kind of dangerous situation shows how having more access to trustworthy and reliable information and news is vital for so many of our communities to be informed about the current emergency.”
Emergency situations raise the stakes
Greg Taylor, associate professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary, says the ongoing wildfire situation perfectly encapsulates the seriousness of the fight between the government and Big Tech.
“This is far more than simply an annoyance right now. This is a matter — in some cases literally — of survival,” he said in an interview.
“You can argue back and forth about the bill itself that’s underlying this, but at the core … it’s an emergency and citizens need access to information and Facebook is not there for them right now,” he said.
“I think it shows that there are some real concerns with Facebook being where we go in times of an emergency.”