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Rob Shaw: B.C. cuts deal with Meta, leaving local media in the dust amid wildfires

Premier David Eby's standoff with Facebook over local news access amid wildfires reveals a controversial deal that may impact public safety in British Columbia
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In a striking turn, the BC government's negotiations with Meta end in a deal prioritizing government ads over local news during emergencies, risking public information accuracy.

Premier David Eby has spent the last nine months talking tough against social media giant Facebook, accusing it of endangering the lives of British Columbians by denying them access to trusted and reliable local news sources during wildfire emergencies.

He said parent company Meta was holding citizens “for ransom” in a fight with Ottawa over online regulations. He refused to meet any company lobbyists until they reconsidered the news ban. He forbade government advertising on the platform, except for emergencies. And he publicly chastised CEO Mark Zuckerberg for threatening provincial safety.

So when the NDP government announced a “historic agreement” with Meta on Wednesday after weeks of negotiation on the issue, you might have expected some sort of change to Facebook’s position. Something. Anything.

But it turns out, B.C. New Democrats had quietly sold out the local news industry to Meta in exchange for a cut-rate deal on government advertising and a promise from the tech company to “amplify” state propaganda directly to the eyeballs of Facebook and Instagram users.

“The Province is exploring opportunities for technology companies to help amplify official information for people in emergency situations like wildfires,” read a joint statement between Eby and his “online action table” of tech companies.

“Meta has agreed to establish a direct line of communication that will ensure response measures are closely co-ordinated as part of the government's wildfire safety efforts, including the dissemination of reputable information available from official sources, such as government agencies and emergency services.”

Official sources. Government agencies. Not a single mention of local news. An astounding betrayal of everything the premier had been saying for the better part of a year.

Last August: “I find it so unacceptable that the ban is still in place,” said the premier. “It feels a bit like they're holding British Columbians for ransom, to make their point with Ottawa.”

Last January: “It was more important to them to make a point with the federal government than it was to ensure reliable local news information was available for communities that were threatened by wildfire.”

Or: “I call on Facebook again, Mr. Zuckerberg, open up access to Canadian media so that British Columbians can share critical local information so they can be safe.”

Or: "This is a time for Facebook and Instagram to use the network that they built, frankly on the backs of local media, to communicate with British Columbians about what they need to hear, what information they need, about what's happening in their local communities.”

It’s hard to believe the NDP abandoned all that for what was effectively a Groupon on Meta ad rates.

Yet, full credit to Meta’s high-priced lobbying team, because they certainly managed to blow into town, tell the premier to stuff it, make fools out of B.C.'s hapless negotiators and bolt off back to Toronto in time to catch the next Leafs playoff game.

Attorney General Niki Sharma was unrepentant in her explanation of the deal, lecturing woefully misinformed reporters that Meta’s local news ban is actually “a dispute with the federal government.”

You don’t say.

“Right now the conversations are directly between the Emergency Management Ministry and the platforms about what tools they can have to get information directly out from the ministry, because they thought at that stage that's the most effective thing,” said Sharma.

The attorney general’s defence made it sound like government information had been banned from the platform alongside local news. But that has never been the case. Provincial sources have always been there on Facebook and Instagram during wildfire season — it’s just, they aren’t always timely, accurate or useful for people.

Consider last summer’s dispute in the Shuswap area, in which the BC Wildfire Service publicly accused some local residents of being “vigilantes” for refusing an evacuation order and staying to use abandoned firefighting gear to save their homes.

Imagine that statement “amplified” uncontested across the province, before the residents explained what they were doing (through the media, no less), forced a meeting with the premier, and subsequently obtained changes to BC Wildfire’s policies that permitted more local volunteer expertise in BC Wildfire efforts.

Or consider this week, where the B.C. government is trumpeting its ability to house evacuees from Fort Nelson in hotels in Fort St. John. Yet on-the-ground CBC News coverage revealed many of those evacuees were being evicted from their hotels to make room, in part, for wildfire personnel.

You won’t see that pesky story “amplified” on social media, under the NDP’s “historic” deal. But you will soon get a healthy dose of misleading disinformation from government pumped to your phones about how well the NDP is handling the situation.

B.C.’s deal with Meta is especially dangerous on the eve of a provincial election. It gives the governing New Democrats an unfair advantage in blanketing British Columbians with inaccurate, partisan, self-congratulatory messaging about its wildfire response all summer, while other parties, critics, the media and anyone with a dissenting opinion about the NDP’s wildfire performance are given lesser treatment on the same platforms.

Meta controls the platform. And now the government controls the message. An historic deal indeed. For all the wrong reasons.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com