One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

MediaAugust 14, 2023

What it’s like when news disappears from social media

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

In the wake of Meta pulling its news content from Canadians’ feeds, Mirjam Guesgen comes to terms with what this means for news in the maple nation.

For a while, I didn’t think it would happen at all. Things on my Instagram feed looked pretty normal. Then this morning, during my usual bout of scrolling in bed, I was hit with the dreaded message: “Content can’t be displayed.” 

It’s been a slow arrival, but Meta has finally made good on its threat to remove Canadians’ ability to share, view or link to news stories on its social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram. The move is in retaliation to legislation designed to pump money back into the dying journalism industry by making digital platforms pay for news shared on their sites.

The legislation, called Bill C-18 or the Online News Act, became official at the end of June but it’s taken more than a month to see any real change in my feeds. Maybe I’m not the best case-study. My Insta is mostly for friends, some of whom are journalists, and I do share the occasional article I’ve written but mostly it’s pictures of my dog or the croissant I had for breakfast. My Facebook page isn’t much better. In fact, it’s pretty devoid of all human life and exists almost exclusively so I can buy and sell things on Marketplace. 

I do, however, actively seek out news on various platforms and a swath of my day consists of reading news from Canada and around the world, either through newsletters I’ve signed up to or by going to the news site directly. 

If I barely noticed a change, I wonder if the average Canadian even notices what’s missing. In response to a screenshot I shared, showing how I couldn’t access the national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, on Instagram, one friend responded “??? Why?”

Look at my journalist husband’s feed and it’s a different story. The vast majority of his friends are journos, who regularly post about their latest story or photojournalism trip. For him, every third Instagram Story was blank.

Meta is making its point loud and clear. You can’t see or share news, and it’s your government’s fault.

How did we get to this point?

The Online News Act was born out of a cauldron of journalism job loss, and shrinking or folding newsrooms. The Canadian government says social and search platforms Meta and Google are drawing advertising money – traditionally used to fund news outlets – away from news. They should reach agreements to compensate news outlets on their own, or face the government stepping in. (Google said that it too will remove links to news on its Search, News and Discover pages once the law takes effect, though Canadians have yet to see any changes.)

As soon as the tech giants announced their plans, news organisations scrambled to ask readers for subscriptions using popups on their websites and social media posts. Some of my husband’s journalism friends too shared info on their Stories about how to sign up for Substacks or newsletters from the publications they write for.

 The fallout on the Meta side has been light so far, but it’s early days. According to public opinion surveys, more than a third of Canadians get their news from Facebook or Instagram, 23% from Twitter, 20% from TikTok and 54% from some combination of news websites (people could pick more than one source). Maybe the public outcry is yet to come. Right now, the Online News Act has taken aim at Google and Meta specifically, with little mention of other platforms like Twitter/X, TikTok, LinkedIn or Apple News.

Experts say that the gap left by barring legitimate news sites from social media will soon be filled with a torrent of misinformation from disreputable sources but that also remains to be seen.

More concerning is what happens if Google removes its news access. In researching for this story, I used the News tab to find the latest updates on the government/tech-giant standoff. Without it, I’d have to go to each individual news organisation’s webpage and search for stories there. That is, if I knew the exact URL and could find it without just typing the name into my search bar. Even if I made it to the site, I’d probably have to scroll back through the archive manually, since most of the search functions on the news websites themselves are Google-powered.

Further down the road, any startup news organisations that manage to claw their way out of the idea phase will have no way to be found by would-be readers. They couldn’t share content on social media, and their name wouldn’t show up on internet searches.

What happens next for Canada is unclear. “Meta has said no way. That the fundamentals of the legislation is not something that they’re satisfied with,” Sara Bannerman, professor of communication studies and media arts at McMaster University, told me. “It would take legislative change to bring news back to Meta.” If the government enters negotiations with Google, it’s unlikely that the Bill will have the monetary effect that the government intended. “It may not be such a rescue of the news industry as was contemplated,” says Bannerman.

Whatever happens in Canada, it will likely set the playbook for the many countries looking to adopt similar legislation. However co-director at AUT’s research centre for journalism, media and democracy, Merja Myllylahti, says that New Zealand’s trajectory will more likely follow that of Australia. 

In 2021 Australia introduced its own news media bargaining code, which was promptly followed by Meta pulling news – including crucial health information amidst the global pandemic. The Australian government ended up rewriting the legislation to say it didn’t apply to Facebook as long as it could demonstrate that it had made enough deals with media outlets to pay them for content. In the end, Meta and Google struck deals with around 30 news organisations totalling around A$200 million. However the details of those deals remain murky

New Zealand will enter into a similar kind of bargaining, some of which has already happened in the case of Google. (The Spinoff signed a deal with Google in June to present its work on the Google News Showcase platform.) 

Despite the alarm bells from New Zealand’s maple- and white-star-flagged friends, minister Willie Jackson is confident that New Zealand’s version, the Digital Bargaining Bill, will be successful. He said that legislation would be introduced to the House next week.

Jackson’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but he told Newsroom in July that “Officials expect that if Meta were to leave the digital news media marketplace in New Zealand, another social media platform would enter the market and take its place.”

Keep going!