As Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories in Canada embarked on a mass evacuation of 20,000 residents last week, the city turned to Facebook to help share the latest information about the wildfires that were quickly approaching.
But instead of simply sharing a link to a story about the wildfires from CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel, the city instructed residents to look up the information on a search engine.
“Google: CPAC Canada or www . cpac . ca (just remove the spaces),” the city posted.
In the midst of a natural disaster, Yellowknife had to navigate around Facebook’s decision to block news articles on its platform in Canada. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, began rolling out the ban on Aug. 1 in response to a new Canadian law that requires tech companies to pay news outlets for using their content.
Canadian lawmakers passed the Online News Act in June, requiring social media platforms like Meta and search engines like Google to negotiate with news publishers to license their content. The law is slated to go into effect in December. But Meta has described the legislation as “unworkable” and said that the only way for the company to comply with the law was to “end news availability for people in Canada.”
As a result, content posted on Facebook and Instagram by local Canadian and international news outlets will no longer be visible to Canadians using the platforms.
“We have been clear since February that the broad scope of the Online News Act would impact the sharing of news content on our platforms,” Meta said in a statement on Tuesday. “We remain focused on ensuring people in Canada can use our technologies to connect with loved ones and access information.”
Meta also noted that more than 65,000 people had marked themselves safe from the wildfires by using Facebook’s Safety Check tool.
But for many Canadians, especially those in remote parts of the country who rely heavily on social media for information, the timing could not have been worse, given the nation’s worst wildfire season on record.
“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,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday. “Instead of making sure that local journalists are fairly paid for keeping Canadians informed on things like wildfires, Facebook is blocking news from its sites.”
In response, some users are finding workarounds, such as typing out the full URL, as the city of Yellowknife did, taking screenshots and threading additional information in comments — or ditching Facebook and Instagram altogether.
Ollie Williams, the news editor for Cabin Radio, an independent online news site and radio station in Yellowknife, said that the platforms had become “useless” in the wake of the new ban and that the station had stopped using them. The ban is “stupid and dangerous,” he said, “because it impedes the flow of vital information in a crisis.”
“We’ve seen that amply demonstrated,” he said.
Mr. Williams said that Cabin Radio’s audience had done a “remarkable job” of “undermining” Facebook by taking screenshots of news articles and posting them on their own pages, or by going directly to Cabin Radio’s website for news.
Rather than pivoting to a new social media strategy in the middle of covering the fires, Mr. Williams said that Cabin Radio readers and listeners did the work for them “in a way I maybe hadn’t expected,” he said. “It took a lot of weight off our shoulders.”
In the last few weeks, traffic to the Cabin Radio site, where a small group of journalists have covered a wide range of developments related to the fires and the evacuation efforts, has shattered records, Mr. Williams said.
But other groups have not been as lucky.
Melissa David, the founder of Parachutes for Pets, a Calgary-based group that offers pet support programs and emergency response services, said the organization relies on Facebook to share verified information. But because the group was not able to include a news article with a post announcing that Parachute for Pets had been designated an official emergency response center, volunteers were confused and some questioned the post’s authenticity, she said.
The organization, which is helping to care for more than 400 animals affected by wildfires in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, had to bring on two additional volunteers to help with direct outreach, Ms. David said.
“We’ve got a rhythm, but it’s still a hindrance,” she said.
Trevor Moss, the chief executive of the Central Okanagan Food Bank, said he was worried about the long-term effect of the news ban. The food bank serves the Kelowna area in British Columbia, where fires continue to burn out of control.
“We’re going through a six- to eight-week recovery,” he said. “We’re in a crisis, and people want to respond, and every news media outlet should be allowed to do that in this moment.”