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Going into an election year under Meta’s news ban will be a challenge for Canada’s democracy 

Experts are concerned about the risks of disinformation, amplified by AI, as well as political propaganda disguised as facts  Continue Reading Going into an election year under Meta’s news ban will be a challenge for Canada’s democracy 

With a federal election coming by October 2025 at the latest, experts are warning that the news ban on Meta platforms could have a direct impact on the vote.

“One of the major concerns is the quality of the information for the people who are going to make a decision,” said Colette Brin, professor of journalism at Laval University and director of the Centre for Media Studies. “We can, for example, imagine that some people will not vote because they don’t have enough information that allows them to make an informed choice. So the vote turnout could be impacted.” 

Since last August, Canada has been in the middle of a news blackout on social media platforms owned by Meta, which include Facebook, Instagram and Threads. The blocks mean that people in Canada cannot access any news — national or international — on any of those popular platforms. Meta wiped all news off its platforms in retaliation to Bill C-18, which sought to force technology companies distributing Canadian news to pay a fee to media outlets for their use. 

This outcome has transferred the burden of accessing news onto the shoulders of individuals who have to actively visit news websites, download apps, subscribe to newsletters or listen to news podcasts to stay informed. While these might sound like easy tasks, the fact is that news exposure has plummeted as average people who had grown accustomed to seeing news through their social media platforms suddenly lost that avenue.

According to the Media Ecosystem Observatory, Meta’s news ban has triggered a 90 per cent drop in engagement on Facebook with Canadian news outlets. 

“There is no doubt that this situation causes more disinformation,” said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an associate professor at the B.C.-based Simon Fraser University’s school of communication. “When you’re used to getting news in your feed and suddenly none of that is happening, you will end up consuming other sources that might not be very credible. You can also switch to alternative media, mostly used by extreme or hate groups. So you will see more disinformation and hate speech spreading.”

The situation could become particularly volatile during an election, when all political parties try to convince voters by using all possible means, sometimes even by distorting the truth.

“Electoral periods are always sensitive periods. But what is added this year in terms of disinformation is AI’s increase in the striking force of sources of disinformation, combined with the fact that we are not able to access information verified by journalists on these platforms. It’s a bit of a dangerous cocktail,” said Brin. 

Disinformation, accelerated by AI, remains indeed one of the biggest threats today. The World Economic Forum in Davos this year considered AI to be one of the most important threats to humanity, on the same level as wars or the climate.

There is no shortage of examples of the use of audio or video deepfakes in politics. A candidate in Slovakia’s most recent election has been issuing warnings about the power AI has to derail votes after being the subject of a deepfake audio that featured him saying he had rigged the election. Though he was the frontrunner, the deepfake lost him the vote.

An advantage for politicians?

In Canada, while news is no longer available on Meta platforms, political parties can continue to spread their messages. Meanwhile, users receive those messages while experiencing reduced exposure to news reporting or fact checking.

This was the case in Manitoba, the only province to have elections since the news ban, last October. Ian Froese, provincial affairs reporter at CBC Manitoba, said that voters were missing the kind of reporting that is essential to make informed decisions.

Information was lacking “some kind of analysis of the promises, like to see if they are reasonable or can be realized” said Froese. “None of that reporting was really out there on Facebook or Instagram,” which means that many people were missing wider perspectives during the campaign. 

The situation leaves the field open to political parties to play with the limits of misinformation, as they disseminate narratives that are intended to favour their own candidates and parties at the expense of their opponents — and, oftentimes, the truth. 

“And if more of this information gets out there and is unchecked by reporters, it sort of allows the parties to share whatever they want to the whole world,” said Froese. On the other hand, “what some political parties say is misinformation or misleading” is not always the case, he added.   

CBC Manitoba launched its TikTok account just before the elections to get around the ban. Still, some Manitobans ultimately felt less informed during the campaign.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has expressed concern about the impact of the news bans during the next federal election, especially on what resources people across Canada will consult prior to exercising their right to vote. 

“The continued expansion of news deserts, and the proliferation of social platforms, has highlighted how political candidates are increasingly able to circumvent answering tough and probative questions from journalists in favor of more friendly audiences who do not challenge proposed ideas or policies,” said CAJ national president Brent Jolly.

Studies in progress

Almost a year into the news bans, several studies are underway to better understand the impacts they’ve had in our society. According to preliminary results from studies conducted at McGill University’s Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy, and the Media Ecosystem Observatory, a McGill University and University of Toronto project, the news blocks have led to profound changes in the way Facebook users in Canada engage with information about politics.

For example, some have replaced news with political memes. The research highlights that disinformation and lack of information can have the potential to undermine political discourse, particularly in election years.

To top it all off, Meta recently added a default setting to limit political content on Instagram and Threads, saying that it doesn’t “want to proactively recommend political content from accounts you don’t follow.” The setting actively limits exposure to explicitly political content, which will impact what users see. On the one hand, it could help stem the flow of misinformation and propaganda because users won’t be seeing viral posts if they don’t follow the sources. On the other hand, however, content producers ranging from politicians to grassroots organizations to individual activists and analysts could also lose exposure, further disconnecting users from ostensibly reliable and valuable political information. If anyone, including political parties, want their messages to reach users, they must pay for political advertising, which is still allowed. 

It is still early to assess what impact the Meta news ban will have on the next federal election. But one thing is certain— this will not be without consequences, as already seen during last year’s wildfire season, which saw people from B.C. to the Northwest Territories fighting to access vital emergency evacuation information. 

“All sides have lost and I don’t think it’s useful for everyone to have this restrictive or limited source of factual news. It will continue to impact everyone and ultimately our own democracy,” said Simon Fraser’s Al-Rawi. 

While Canada prepares for its first federal election under the Meta news ban, Australia could provide a test case for what happens in a severely restricted news environment. Meta warned that it will stop paying for news content — which it had agreed to do back in 2021 — and has already started limiting news on all its services in the country. 

An election is expected to take place by May 2025 there, and it could become a case study on what happens when a democracy holds a national vote with a limit on online news.

Romain Chauvet
Romain Chauvet

Romain Chauvet is a freelance French-Canadian journalist based in Europe. He notably covered for Canadian media the 2023 earthquake in Turkiye, the coronation of King Charles III in London, the refugee crisis in Europe and the historic fires in Greece.