Late last June, after news broke of a stabbing at the University of Waterloo, the student paper Imprint immediately turned to Instagram — its most popular social media platform — and X (formerly Twitter) to share all the latest developments. Posts included updates, bumps of university feeds as well as links to stories on the police investigation and student demands for accountability.
However, such posts are no longer an option. As of Aug. 1, Meta (the company behind Facebook and Instagram) started blocking access to news on its two main social media channels for all Canadian users. The ban impacts all news outlets including student newspapers and local radio stations. Meta stated that move is a response to the federal government’s Online News Act, Bill C-18, which is set to come into force in late 2024.
Bill C-18 intends to force Meta and Google’s parent company Alphabet to pay Canadian news publishers for their content. However, the bill omits student outlets that employ two or fewer journalists. “We don’t meet the definition that has been set out in the bill. If Meta agreed to pay, we would not have seen any money anyway,” said Andrew Mrozowski, president of Canadian University Press (CUP), which operates a newswire service for campus publications and advocates for student papers.
Jean-Hugues Roy, a journalism professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, explained that student and other media were initially included under the law, which may be why they were quiet in response to Meta’s blocking. He believed Meta didn’t like the Canadian version of the law because of this inclusion.
Google has also voiced its displeasure, and briefly tested removing Canadian content from Google News and limiting hits on searches. This worries Gabriela Perdomo, assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University and the editor of J-Source, a well-known journalism industry and education digital publication. “It’s even more maddening,” she said. “It’s a stealth move — you don’t know what will happen.”
Meanwhile , X has become increasingly mercurial, recently removing headlines from links to news articles and cutting off an auto-share function from WordPress. “This is a very uncertain time,” said Dr. Perdomo. As student publications have reduced or eliminated their print editions, they need online readership. “The number one need right now is for publications to maintain a direct connection with their readers. Invisibility is a problem.”
Critics argue the proposed legislation will benefit large media companies at the expense of local and independent news outlets. Many mainstream publications including the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star have signed agreements with Google around news sharing, which Carleton University professor Dwayne Winseck thinks was an attempt to “head off this legislation at the pass.” Smaller outlets, including those represented by the National Campus and Community Radio Association, advocated to be included in the bill as they are required to maintain a 15 per cent spoken word content. NCRA executive director Barry Rooke noted “We’re mandated to create this content but these news giants Meta and Google are not required to talk with us,” said Barry Rooke, executive director of the NCRA.
Canadian University Press and the NCRA recently issued a statement urging collaboration between government and social media companies underscoring that while the ban harms all media, it “strikes a particularly devastating blow to student journalism.”
According to Gabriel Tremblay, general manager of the Impact Campus newspaper at Université Laval as well the university’s student media co-op, the newspaper is considering a return to more traditional content sharing methods, such as posting on bulletin boards around town. There is also a plan to produce a weekly podcast discussing current affairs.
Meanwhile, the Quartier Libre newspaper team at Université de Montréal plans to use QR codes at back-to-school fairs and events to direct students to its website. The team is also considering publishing on other platforms such as X and LinkedIn, as well as creating a newsletter to promote their content.
Other universities are thinking along the same lines.
University of British Columbia’s student paper, The Ubyssey, recently published its annual guide to UBC. “We’ll be dropping off copies at residences. It would be great if we could post on Instagram about it,” said coordinator editor Anabella McElroy.
In response to the ban, she and her team will be setting up more tables around campus, beefing up the paper’s newsletter tracking engagement on X and posting more on TikTok and YouTube.
Finding the right platform before the next campus crisis might prove tricky. “How are we supposed to break news and tell students this is happening?” questioned Mr. Mrozowski. He added that student publications that rely on advertising were already dealing with dramatically declining revenues.
Community communication at risk
Ironically, the student press has struggled to help the university community understand why they are blocked by Meta. “There’s a lot of confusion about where all of this is coming from. The narrative of ‘this is all the government’s fault’ has been very well played by social media companies,” said Mr. Fuentes.
“It’s not an easy bill to understand,” said Carleton’s Dr. Winseck, who teaches communications and media studies. While he agrees social media companies should be subjected to regulation, like all other businesses, he maintains the bill is flawed and is fuelling widespread misunderstanding.
It is not clear whether the Canadian government will negotiate, as Australia did, or hold firm.
In the meantime, as student journalists continue to learn how to make the most of TikTok, the conflict continues on a wider scale regarding news, profit sharing and regulations. “This is a proxy battle for who has control over the platform in which we communicate,” said Mr. Rooke. “Is it government, or is it big business?”
With files from Mohamed Berrada.