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Satirical websites get caught up in Meta’s quest to block news in Canada

Beaverton and other Canadian comedy sites getting caught in Facebook battle over online news bill
Satirical websites are getting caught up in Meta’s quest to remove all news from its Facebook and Instagram platforms in Canada, testing those publications’ survival. The META logo is seen at the Vivatech show in Paris in Paris, France, Wednesday, June 14, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Thibault Camus

Luke Gordon Field is trying to figure out how he can explain the concept of deadpan satire to an algorithm.

He says he never thought in a million years that the need to explain a joke would transcend humans. But it’s a situation he believes he has found himself in as editor-in-chief of The Beaverton, a Canadian comedy website.

Meta is in the process of removing all news from its Facebook and Instagram platforms in Canada in response to a new law that would force the company to compensate media outlets for content that is shared or otherwise repurposed on their platforms.

But satirical sites are getting caught up in the tech giant’s quest, too — even though their human audiences know they aren’t news.

It’s an error that some publications say could threaten their survival.

“I don’t want to be too dramatic, but in a world where Facebook completely cuts us off, I mean, there’s a very real chance we do not survive that,” Field told The Canadian Press.

He said he started The Beaverton over a decade ago with a group of comedy writers who just wanted to put their funny jokes online for people to see.

They don’t have major financial backing or wealthy owners, and they have relied heavily on Facebook to promote their content and grow their audience, he said.

“I would equate (Facebook) as a drug dealer where the first taste is free, and they make you keep coming back for more.”

This week, Field said he discovered that their supply was getting cut off after he received messages from Canadian readers saying they could no longer see The Beaverton’s posts.

“If traffic really decreases because of Facebook, and then by extension revenue decreases, then there’s a scenario where we can’t keep the lights on,” Field said.

Scott Slute, who runs the satirical site The Toronto Harold, had his content blocked by Meta last month on Instagram, which he said similarly affected his business. He saw likes on his Instagram posts dropping to hundreds from thousands.

He said he believes a default tag that labelled him as a news site led to the account being captured by Meta’s block. After removing the tag, Slute reached out to the company and appealed its decision.

“It was a little devastating to see something I’d worked so hard on for three years to just be taken away from me like that,” Slute said. “It was a helpless feeling.”

It took less than a week for Meta to resolve the problem after he filled out a questionnaire, with Slute noting the process was “pretty good.”

“They got back to me and said they had determined that it was not a news site, so they put it back up,” Slute said.

Field is hoping Meta will realize its own error when it comes to The Beaverton, which he emphasized would not qualify for funding under the Liberals’ Online News Act.

“So much of our stuff is not even remotely news,” Field said.

“It should not be blocked by this this ban.”

Meta has said it is taking a phased approach to removing news from Canadians’ feeds in order to ensure the process works as expected.

The company is hoping to avoid mistakes it made in Australia when it temporarily blocked news on Facebook in that country. In doing so, it accidentally limited access to non-news content — including the pages for some emergency services.

The Beaverton has changed its Facebook settings to make it clear they’re an entertainment and comedy company, not a news company, Field said.

“I want to believe it’s an algorithm that is not functioning properly and it’s an error that has or will be sorted, because of course we’re a comedy website.”

In the meantime, he’s having fun by writing satirical articles about the issue and responding in jest on other social media platforms.

In a letter posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, The Beaverton threatened Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg with what Field calls a “clearly fake lawsuit” for defaming The Beaverton by calling them a news organization.

Canadians can expect to see news removed from their Facebook and Instagram accounts in the coming weeks, but seeing satire go along with it would be a disaster, said Field.

“I think we have a role to play, a very small role, but a role to play nonetheless in the conversation about issues in this country, about what’s going on in the world,” Field said.

“And I think satire can be such an important beacon of truth. It would suck to lose all of that, let alone the fact that it would mean that me and my friends who do this together wouldn’t be able to hang out quite as much.”

READ MORE: Police using social media accounts as Meta begins blocking Canadian news