Exploring the Bill C-18 Criticism of “Who Gets Their News on Facebook?”

One criticism that pops up a lot in the Bill C-18 debate is who uses Facebook for news. The math on this is funky.

If you’ve spent anywhere near as much time as me on the Bill C-18, you’ll come across users who generally have a “what gives?” attitude of this whole debate. Many of these users ask questions like “who uses Facebook for news?” or “I don’t get my news from Facebook, so I don’t know if I’ll notice a difference.” Is some of that just political jabs at the media for making such a huge mess of the situation? Perhaps. Most of it, however, is actually extremely valid criticisms and questions.

The question is, how is it possible that media companies and websites get so much value out of platforms like Google and Facebook, yet at the same time, it seems like so few people actually use those services for news in the first place? This is actually a mixture of math and perspective.

Different Perspectives

One area I have a lot of experience in in terms of seeing both perspectives is the perspective of users vs website owner. It’s extremely easy for a user to look at a website and say, “Well, how hard could it be to run something like that? You put up a few web pages, sit back, and let the cash roll in.” Well, a website from the users perspective is generally simple by design. For a website administrator, its definitely more complex than that.

For those who have never run a website, let me ask you a series of questions. Have you ever had to renew an SSL certificate? Have you had to set up a website e-mail account? What about updating the PHP on a server? How about how to set up and maintain a CMS? Do you understand how to back up a database? What do you know about registering and maintaining a DNS domain? What do you look for in a hosting provider?

For 99% of people with little to no website experience, what I just wrote will seem like I’m downright speaking a foreign language at one point or another. For website administrators (or, at least, those who get to deal with the task of administering the website anyway), however, these are just common every day things to think about (well, maybe not literally every day, but common enough normal stuff.) The simple truth is that the end users never really worries about stuff like that (nor should they!). All they know is that the click on a link or go to a website, the page loads fine, and they enjoy a website afterwards. For anyone making the jump from being a passive user (or even a staff member of a website), it’s a big leap to make – and not exactly an easy leap to make, either.

The point is, users and those running the website see things differently. Indeed, there are times when one perspective misses what another perspective sees. It can be difficult to bridge that gap at times. It’s a pretty safe bet that average users would be surprised at just how difficult it is to build and maintain a website compared to simply browsing the web.

The Staggering Size of the Internet

Another concept at play is raw numbers and the scale of the modern internet. A lot of users out there think that by browsing a handful of websites, they know all there is to know about the internet. In fact, a number of people still have no clue that there is an internet world to explore beyond Facebook. The truth is the internet is downright huge. To get a general idea of scale, there are two well known maps of the internet. There’s my personal favourite of HalcyonMaps from 2021. Most people will have never used even the largest websites on that map and I think a lot of people would be surprised to find out that although sites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube are huge, they don’t exactly take over the map in terms of size, either.

Another map people refer to is an even older map known as The Internet Map. It’s a more conceptual interpretation of the internet, but it does give you an idea of scale and just how large websites really were when the snapshot was generated.

There’s loads of other maps out there, but you generally get the idea. The internet is big and, chances are, you haven’t even begun to explore it. Trillions of clicks are generated every day and there are billions of users using it for different purposes.

A microcosm of the internet is YouTube. Video’s get over a million views and you probably haven’t viewed them. This happens a lot because YouTube is, well, huge. For instance a video about skinning a water melon got over 134 million views. Someone deleting 5GB of scammer files got 3.6 million views. Someone attempting to restore a McLaren P1 got 3 million views. A professional rock climber trying arm wrestling got over 4 million views. A professional poker player talking about a poker cheating scandal racked up close to 4 million views. Most people probably haven’t seen all of those videos. A few, maybe, but probably not all of them.

What’s more is that it is more than possible for others to pick through their YouTube channels and find plenty of video’s I haven’t heard of that have racked up millions of views. YouTube is so big that it is more than possible to rack up millions of views on a video and most people haven’t even heard about them. There’s just that many videos and that many people viewing them to make that more than possible (easily possible, even).

Simply put, the days of something being seen millions of times and everyone hearing about it has been over for years – maybe even more than a decade now. This kind of stuff happens all of the time. There are hugely popular websites out there that you have never heard of and there are hugely popular video’s out there that you probably didn’t know even exists.

Will People Notice Canadian News Disappearing on Platforms?

Both of the above concepts, though seemingly completely different, are actually related to the debate surrounding the Online News Act (formerly Bill C-18) – specifically with the question from some asking who even uses platforms like Facebook to find news in the first place. Well, you might recall that, back in early June, I reported on a study concluding that the amount of traffic social media drives to news publishers is low and falling. We’re talking just about 4% of traffic for all social media and Twitter being less than 2% of traffic, possibly around 1% of traffic.

The above tracks with what Alphabet told Senators when they asked what their testing revealed about how many people use Google for news. They said that less than 2% of their queries were related to news content. What’s more, they derive even less revenue from such content because Google News contains no advertising and, as a result, no direct way of generating revenue.

Over top of that is an even earlier study that concluded that 4 in every 1,000 posts on Facebook’s main feed links to a news article.

For news organizations insisting that platforms are wholly dependent on news organization’s content, the statistics really tell a very different story – and a story that the large media companies probably would rather people not be familiar with because it completely takes a wrecking ball to their claims in the first place.

Regardless of the large media companies gut feelings (and occasional statistical cherry picking to try and massage the numbers to make themselves look better), the users who are asking who even uses Meta for news actually know better. This is because when they say they don’t see news on these platforms, to them, I say, “Congratulations, you are the statistical norm.”

What’s more, for many of these users, they won’t see any real difference in their use of platforms like Facebook and Google. This is because they have long ago told the algorithm, whether directly or indirectly, that they have no interest in the news and are using these services for other reasons – namely reasons that have nothing to do with the news. This really plays into what I mentioned earlier about the experience of users versus the experience of the website administrator.

Why the Media Will Notice a Difference

While most users out there will not even notice the difference, the news organizations, however, most certainly will see a difference. As we’ve heard from witnesses in the senate hearings, there were numbers thrown around about how much traffic comes from both. In one instance, 40% of traffic came from Google while another 30% came from social media. So, if the news organization loses access to both, that is a loss of up to 70% in traffic. Even a 50% loss in traffic overnight would be devastating to any website. Whether that is a huge killer of your momentum moving up in the world or just a death knell to the viability of your website, such a loss would be bad – like really really bad.

For those who have made it this far into the article, a big question might be this: OK, how is it possible that on the one hand, platforms dropping access to news won’t mean anything to them or the users, but at the same time, the news organizations would be devastated by the loss? This sounds like two contradictory things. Both realities, however, are very true in this instance.

Well, Facebook, simply put, is absolutely huge right now. They boast nearly 3 billion active users which probably breaks down into the trillions of clicks for all I know. Let’s just say it is a lot – like a lot a lot.

So, when you, say, take 2% of 3 billion people, that’s 60 million people. Divide that up with the multitude of different news sites – let’s just say for arguments sake, 1,000 news websites, you are looking at an average of 60,000 people regularly seeing your website. That can very easily be enough to sustain a large website. That is a number that goes well over above and beyond the largest news website I have ever worked for. Someone like me can only dream of having numbers that big. Yes, there are numerous factors involved. This includes language barriers, the competing interests of different countries around the world, what people are interested in the first place, marketing strategies and capabilities involved, and whole host of other factors that make these numbers not so evenly spread out.

Again, this is the difference in perspective. For the administrator of the news websites, the change is going to mean a lot and could even make or break some of them out there. From the platforms perspective, however, the change is downright meaningless to them. They can take the hit, but the news websites cannot. As I’ve said for years now, publishers need platforms far more than platforms need publishers.

As a result, you are looking at an issue of scale. It is easy to see why some publishers out there falsely think that because they get a lot of traffic from platforms, that automatically means that the platforms depend entirely on their content to keep them afloat. They’re getting 3 million pageviews per month from platforms, therefore, the whole world revolves around them because they are clearly super popular. In reality, they are only getting a sliver of the traffic pie from platforms so insignificant, there is barely a reason to even measure it. For some media companies, they don’t really realize just how little power they even wield in this debate, making the hope that platforms will come crawling back little more than an exercise in hanging on to a nugget of fools gold hoping that it really is as valuable as gold itself.

Yes, the Online News Act Debate is a Niche Issue

We know that the effects will almost exclusively, if not, exclusively impact those behind news operations (including, potentially, me). There are others out there such as those who research the news or simply read the news for one reason or another. Beyond that, it’s difficult to really pin point who this really impacts in the long run. Indeed, a number of tools people like us take for granted might see some of these tools disappear (which sucks), but for most people, these are services they have never really used to any real degree in the first place.

Because of this and many other reasons explained above, all of this does explain why so much of this debate never gained a whole lot of traction from the general public. This despite the enormous effort by the traditional media outlets to get people to honestly believe that this is a crucial fight for democracy. For one, the call to arms was hugely disingenuous and anyone who has a basic level of understanding of how the internet works knows this. For another, a lot of people will actually just skim through some of this stuff at best and just admit they have no idea what’s going on. The future of journalism isn’t exactly the worlds most exciting topic to discuss with people who have no real interest in the topic otherwise.

As a result, you don’t exactly have mass protests at buildings representing Facebook and Google’s physical presence in this country. The debate doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it as, say, the major record labels are going to randomly sue people for 10s of millions of dollars for something you may or may not have done (ala the file-sharing debates of old) or the government is going to spy on your every communication (ala the Lawful Access debates of old). While this debate is hugely important, it is a taller order to get the population motivated enough to take action on this.

So, what you are left with is a very niche issue. An issue that sits in between the broader issue of technology, business, the media, copyright, politics, and government (and maybe international trade law). In that context, it’s a weirdly specific issue.

The thing is, this is actually a problem that falls squarely on the large media organizations who pushed for this law in the first place. If they suffer from the consequences of their own actions and are hoping for much broader support to dig them out of the hole they put themselves in, that support might come in a very small form or not at all. This does play into the platforms favour as they can throw that switch, cut off the medias access to their audiences, and few would bat an eye at this.

The Implications of this Are Big

This is not to say that the problems arising from this is not big. In fact, this is pretty significant. There are people out there, today, who are thinking of possibly entering into the news business space. Whether they see a need that seems to be unfilled, think they can do a better job at this (i.e. me), or think that there is a specific angle that is otherwise not really covered that well (also i.e. me), innovation in the online space can come into reality in many shapes and forms even in the online news space.

If this debate was happening a decade ago as I was just starting my website, I know for a fact that I would not have carried through with this whole independent news website thing. After all, if I was told that I could no longer be found on Google or social media by the end of the year, I would look at just closing the website entirely rather than carry through with this whole concept of planning a million ways for how to grow the website. I would have said, “not worth it, then” and dropped the concept before moving on to something else. I don’t see that happening now as the website has grown far too complex and too large to just drop as a result of a law that’s about to come into force. I’ve been at this for more than a decade and I’m way too committed to just give up at this point.

Of course, in thinking about this, what about those who are contemplating how to fulfill their life long dreams out there today? A lot of ideas today might be getting scrapped because of this. As a result, audience needs of tomorrow, at least in Canada, might go unfilled as dreams go unrealized. This over top of the existing businesses that happened to build them in certain ways that severely exposes them to the risks of this law. We’re talking a lot of businesses out there that are either folding or stepping back plans for expansion.

All of this will happen at the same time as other countries having innovators with similar dreams not having those disastrous barriers to entry. They can use the techniques of marketing on Facebook or investing in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and getting results that would be expected of this. This while Canadians at home losing access to such markets simply because the government decided to pass a law that neuters Canadian online innovation in the news space. All that extra tax revenue, additional jobs, inspiring future generations, etc. are all gone in Canada. All of this because lobbyists got exactly what they asked for and got the result that they refused to believe would happen. It sucks.


So, returning to the original premise of this article, if you see people remarking that they won’t notice a difference in their experience or don’t know who uses platforms for news, at least most of them are not wrong. The statistics line up nicely with what they are saying. For people in the news sector, the change is going to hit hard because, for them, again, the statistics line up nicely here. Although this seems like a confusing contradiction, when you take into account perspective and scale, the logic and evidence is there explaining why you can have both happening here. Even after 3 years of this debate, the evidence we’ve been using still holds firm.

Most users out there may not notice a difference. For us news types, though, we could all be in a world of hurt. For platforms, the implications of dropping support for news links is negligible. As for those who pushed for this law in the first place, it’s going to hurt a lot. Just know that those media types that pushed for this brought this situation on themselves.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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