Evacuees of the devastating fires threatening Yellowknife say the ongoing fight between Meta, the owner of Facebook, and Canada’s federal government over who should pay for the news has made it difficult to spread vital information about the wildfires in the Territories from the Northwest.
Delaney Poitras, who lives in Fort Smith, NWT, made the decision to leave her community a few hundred miles from the capital on Friday for the larger community of Hay River, where she stayed with her family on Saturday. But on Sunday, Hay River received an urgent evacuation order, so the family went back to camp.
“I’ve never been evacuated in my life, and to do it twice in 24 hours, it was terrifying,” she told Breaking: from Leduc, Alta., where she and her family have been staying at an evacuation center while they wait. to check into a hotel.
Poitras says it’s bad enough having to manage the logistics of rushing out and worrying about what might happen to her hometown while she’s gone, but the situation has been made worse by the ongoing fight between Big Tech and the government. Canadian on whom. she must pay for the news.
Bill C-18, which was recently signed into law, requires large social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and others to compensate Canadian news publishers when their content is shared. Meta has rejected the law and followed through on its threat to block the 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 blocked, meaning people can’t get or share critical information from news sources on Facebook and Instagram, two of the most popular social networks. media sites
The debate over Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act, may be academic in many parts of Canada, but not in the north, where people are dealing with a natural disaster that unfolds and suddenly they can’t use one of the most popular communication platforms to share information about wildfire locations and evacuation plans.
Poitras says that social media is important where they live. “This is how we all keep in touch.”
A live press conference covered by Cabin Radio and the CBC on Wednesday night announced the evacuation of Yellowknife, but could not be shared on Facebook, prompting users like Poitras and others to try to dodge the block by posting screenshots. of information instead of direct links. .
“It’s hard to find the right information to share with all the people I have on Facebook,” he said, “but I try to do everything I can to make sure it’s correct.”
The territorial government has provided the following information for residents:
Although she and others are trying to help, Poitras says it’s a faulty system that’s becoming dangerous.
“In our community, protective services and the RCMP were going door to door. I guess some people…didn’t answer the door or just didn’t know this was happening.”
‘Stupid and dangerous’
Ollie Williams, editor of Cabin Radio, based in Fort Simpson, NWT, about 600km west of the capital, says Meta’s move to ban news is “stupid and dangerous and clearly shouldn’t 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 it very clear that I’m not a fan of anyone being involved in that, and I think there are a lot of actors out there.”
But Williams says she’s been pleasantly surprised by how well her audience has weathered the ban on obtaining and sharing information.
Every night after his shift, he checks Facebook and Instagram and says “it’s just screenshot after screenshot after screenshot of our updates being shared by our audience with their friends.”
Williams credits the audience for coming directly to his website, which he says has had as much traffic in the past few days as it normally would have in an entire year.
“Let’s not stand here and complain about Meta and complain about the ban and say, ‘Well, this is stupid,’ it is. Let’s also say how encouraging it is that there is a wildfire situation and the audience, the people who consume the news, I just put Meta aside and said ‘Okay, well, that’s useless’, and went straight to the source.”
Meta has faced pressure to loosen the ban due to the current situation. But in a statement to Breaking:, the company says it stands by its position, noting that government sites and other sources that disseminate information are not subject to the ban.
“People in Canada can use Facebook and Instagram to connect with their communities and access trusted information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations,” said Meta spokesman David Troya-Alvarez.
The company has also activated a feature known as Safety Checkup that allows users to click a button to update their status and let friends and family know they are safe from wildfires.
Safety Check was used for previous natural disasters, but Meta turned it on for the Northwest Territory wildfires on Thursday.
Misinformation a concern, says evacuee
Northerners like Kelsey Worth say the situation is dangerous, not just because information is hard to find and share, but because in the vacuum left by news, misinformation seems to spread faster.
“When it comes to how far away the fire is, that’s definitely been a concern for everyone, because I know there’s been a lot of misinformation about where it is and what’s going on,” the Yellowknife resident told Breaking: from the north. Arm Territorial Park, where they stopped on their way out of town on Thursday.
“I look at the satellite maps now because I can’t get an exact number of where it is.”
She says cell service is patchy in the territory at best, and the blocking of reliable news on social media makes it even more difficult to share accurate information.
For example, on Thursday morning, Worth said her parents told her they had heard the road was closed at 10 a.m.
“But it wasn’t like that,” he said. “I mean, I drove through it around 11.”
Worth is one of many people sharing news screenshots, something he wishes he didn’t have to.
“I avoid saying where it’s coming from because the second you say it’s coming from a radio station or a media outlet, they block you,” he said, noting that several friends have told him they aren’t very aware of the situation in the territory.
“They don’t even know that we are literally surrounded by fires.”
In an emailed statement, the government reiterated its stance on Thursday, telling Breaking: it is “deeply disappointed” that Meta is continuing its “irresponsible and unreasonable” policy of blocking news on its platforms.
“This includes northern communities who rely on him as a source of information,” said a spokesman for Canada’s Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge.
“More than ever, this type of dangerous situation shows how having more access to reliable and reliable news and information is vital for many of our communities to be informed about the current emergency.”
Emergencies raise the stakes
Greg Taylor, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary, says the current wildfire situation perfectly sums up the seriousness of the fight between government and big tech.
“This is so much more than just a nuisance right now. It is a matter, in some cases literally, of survival,” she said in an interview.
“You can argue back and forth about the bill itself underlying this, but deep down…it’s an emergency and citizens need access to information and Facebook isn’t there for them right now.” , said.
“I think it shows that there are some real concerns about whether Facebook is the place to go in times of emergency.”