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May 8, 2024, 2:49 p.m.
Audience & Social

Screenshots are one big winner of Meta’s news ban in Canada

“We observe a dramatic increase in posts containing screenshots of Canadian news stories in the post-ban period.”

Last year the Canadian government passed a law, the Online News Act, that would require platforms like Google and Meta to pay publishers for linking to their content. Rather than pay up, Meta removed news from Facebook and Instagram in Canada.

“News links and content posted by news publishers and broadcasters in Canada will no longer be viewable by people in Canada,” Meta said.

Months later, Canadian users appear to be doing pretty much fine with a news-less Meta, while publishers have suffered, according to a preprint paper released by The Media Ecosystem Observatory, a collaboration between McGill and the University of Toronto.

“We expected the disappearance of news on Meta platforms to have caused a major shock to the Canadian information ecosystem,” the paper’s authors — Sara Parker, Saewon Park, Zeynep Pehlivan, Alexei Abrahams, Mika Desblancs, Taylor Owen, Jennie Phillips, and Aengus Bridgman — write. But the shock appears to have been one-sided. While “the ban has significantly impacted Canadian news outlets,” the authors write, “Meta has deprived users of the affordance of news sharing without suffering any loss in engagement of their user base.”

Using CrowdTangle, the researchers analyzed six months’ worth of Facebook (not Instagram) posts from 987 Canadian news outlets, 183 non-news pages (belonging to “Canadian federal and provincial politicians, political and advocacy organizations, commentators, and content creators”), and 589 politics-related or local community groups. The posts, published between June 1 and December 31, 2023, allowed the researchers to track engagement before and after the news ban. (Meta will shut CrowdTangle down in August; the Media Ecosystem Observatory is waiting to hear about receiving access to Meta’s planned alternative.)

Here are some of the report’s findings:

News-related Facebook groups remain active. The researchers tracked posts from 244 politics-related Facebook groups and 345 local community groups that had been “frequent sharers of Canadian news content.” They found that both the number of posts and engagement with posts after the ban remained largely stable.

“Either news was not all that important in these groups to begin with, or users within the groups identified ways to circumvent the ban and discuss news content,” the authors write.

One method of circumvention: Screenshots.

We observe a dramatic increase in posts containing screenshots of Canadian news stories in the post-ban period. Before the ban, only approximately 19 posts per week featured a screenshot of Canadian news. After the ban, the number of posts with Canadian news screenshots triples to an average of 68 posts per week. This increase in news screenshots after the ban does not correlate with an overall increase in non-news screenshot images, suggesting that the increase in news screenshots is indeed a result of the news ban.

“We saw a pretty wide range of types of news articles [screenshotted] — some from local news sources, but mostly from the bigger national level outlets,” Sara Parker, the paper’s lead author, told me in an email. “Often, people would just share one or two screenshots of the article — so the headline and some key paragraph in the article — but we did see users posting screenshots of the entire article.” The team is looking at screenshots more thoroughly for a follow-up study, Parker noted.

Did individual influencers benefit? It’s unclear. The ban did not seem to have an effect on engagement with influencers’ posts, the researchers found. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Canadian Facebook users aren’t getting more news from influencers, the researchers noted; per the paper, they “may be turning to influencers focused on other countries for their political content,” or Meta could be “suppressing the visibility of news or political content” including influencers’ posts related to those subjects.

Canadian news outlets started posting much less. After the ban, not surprisingly, Canadian national and local news outlets posted to Facebook much less frequently and started getting much less engagement (defined as reactions, comments, and shares).

“I was surprised — maybe shocked is a better word — by how profoundly the ban affected local news outlets,” Parker told me. “Obviously their engagement rates have decreased significantly, but many outlets have stopped posting [to Facebook and Instagram] entirely.”

“Additional analysis is necessary to identify the circumstances in which Canadian news outlets continue to be engaged with. We observe that some news outlets publish content relevant to non-Canadian audiences, particularly by posting entertainment or sports-related news,” the researchers note. And “a small number of news outlets” weren’t included in the ban, and therefore weren’t blocked.

You can read the report here. The researchers expect to release an expanded report this summer.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     May 8, 2024, 2:49 p.m.
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