Facebook is investing $2.5 million in Canadian journalism that the company said will help “unlock strategies” for local news organizations to increase digital engagement and revenue.
The Local News Accelerator – an initiative similar to one launched in the United States in January – was announced two days before Computer Weekly and the Observer reported that the social media behemoth tried to pressure the federal government to ease privacy standards if it were to bring a job-creating data centre to Canada.
The program will be designed with a “Canada-first lens,” according to a Facebook Canada email. The company said it will be working with Canadian news partners and publishers to come up with solutions to some of the problems faced by local news organizations, “with the goal of driving incremental revenue through new initiatives or optimizing existing activities on and off platforms.”
“Canadians expect relevant, quality news on Facebook and so do we,” reads the email. “We have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help local news organizations grow and thrive. We know we can’t do it alone, but there is more we can and will do to help.”
Considered by many to be at the epicentre of the fake news phenomenon, the social media platform has been a breeding ground for misinformation and hate speech, from Macedonian teenagers spreading “sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters,” as reported in BuzzFeed News, to Russian information warfare that allegedly swayed the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
When asked about the March 2 news that the company was lobbying the Canadian government to exempt non-Canadian data from privacy regulations, a spokesperson for Facebook said that the documents were taken out of context.
“Before we commit to opening a data centre anywhere in the world, we want to make sure we fully understand the country’s laws and privacy protections. This is not a threat to withhold investment, but part of our duty to protect people’s data,” Facebook Canada’s communications manager Erin Taylor told J-Source in an email.
Facebook also came under fire last year after reports that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was mining users’ personal data to target them for political advertising.
“Like the other documents that were cherrypicked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context,” Taylor’s email continued, in reference to the documents leaked to United Kingdom-based journalists that outlined COO Sheryl Sandberg’s negotiations with the Stephen Harper government in 2013. “As we’ve said, these selective leaks came from a lawsuit where Six4Three, the creators of an app known as Pikinis, hoped to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail.”
Recently, Facebook executives have been called “digital gangsters” in a report by the U.K. government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee. After an 18-month investigation on the issue of misinformation, the report found that Facebook deliberately violated competition and privacy law in the U.K., and failed to properly fight Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election results, among other allegations.
This investment also comes just a few months after the Canadian federal government pledged $595 million in tax incentives to aid news organizations with labour costs, as well as a 15 per cent tax credit for digital news subscribers. Details of the package are expected in the 2019 budget, slated for release March 19.
Last month, Facebook announced its plan to commit to supporting local news organizations around the world, and focus on “advancing the future of journalism and helping publishers find new ways to monetize their businesses.”
Among these initiatives was the Digital News Innovation Challenge, a five-month accelerator for early-stage digital startups launched in partnership with Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone and journalism school in 2017, as well as the third-party fact checking program with Agence France-Presse.
Disclaimer: A J-Source collaborating institution, Ryerson University, was a partner with Facebook on its Digital News Innovation Challenge.