Social media might be the place you stash food, cat, and landscape pics, or maybe a convenient way to stay connected to distant friends and fam — but either way, it is arguably a vital hub of modern human culture. Sure, it’s important to the brands, content creators, and influencers who keep it running, but it’s even more crucial to the conglomerates who run the platforms to keep ad dollars flowing in, and the balance of power is starting to show.
People who are open about cannabis, sex, activism, and other topics are seemingly being denied audience reach by social media companies, and the impact is enormous. Users feel as though their audiences are shrinking, their accounts have been clipped, and their content is isolated from various avenues of growth.
Media platform Salty recently published a report and analysis of content censorship among marginalised users who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, plus sized, disabled, sex workers, or some combination thereof. The research disturbingly shows that “[d]isproportionate content removals cause marginalised groups to face substantial challenges and consequences when attempting to use online spaces like Instagram.”
While not all weed users are marginalised, plenty of marginalised people use weed. Cannabis use is also severely over-policed in communities of colour. If you add up the existing tax on some identities with this online tax on cannabis use — you may find your account in no man’s land.
How did weed end up on the social media shitlist?
Some of us have been on platforms like Instagram for almost a decade — since back when it was a Facebook alternative, not a Facebook product. Ads on IG were not a thing until 2015. Now, whistleblower Frances Haugen has confirmed what many have said all along: For that platform (and, let’s be honest, all others) profit is paramount.
Maybe by now you’ve heard of XCheck, a program that “whitelisted” certain users to shield them from the content moderation that the rest of us have to live under. To a layperson, it looks like they shielded some users to protect their finances, which is precisely what Haugen alleges. But why is weed talk being policed — and is there anything you can do to avoid the shadowban?
Courtney Wu, CEO of Amnesia Media, works with brands and influencers to help them find success on social media platforms. We spoke via email about the myriad of policies that could be leading to unequal content moderation.
Wu thinks the lack of consistency is one of the tougher things to navigate. “Trying to monitor all cannabis content against constantly shifting state and local regulations is a big challenge in moderation that social media platforms have not invested in.”
This means while you might be in a legal state, your content could still be removed because the drug is federally illegal and still banned in many areas, a circumstance that proves incredibly frustrating for both a growing industry and its customers.
According to Wu, “These platforms have put into place blanket guidelines that are sometimes arbitrarily enforced, and whether content is in violation is up to the interpretation of strict algorithms or fickle content reviewers.”
It’s not just about ads
Ray Ting, Amnesia’s co-founder, chimed in with an important point — posting about cannabis is not just about sales or branding. Weed is now a cultural institution, with 12% of the population identifying as consumers.
“Social media platforms are incentivized to create support systems for as many content creators as possible, but their thinking around cannabis creators needs to evolve,” he said. “These are mums, dads, brothers, sisters, business owners, athletes, you name it — if they are legally consuming and are sharing cannabis consumption to an age-gated audience, they should be able to freely share this part of their life online.”
Other platforms are a little more reasonable about — though not accommodating of — cannabis. Twitter allows registered brands to advertise in Canada only, where cannabis is federally legal, and allows ads for topical CBD in some US states, while non-business users can seemingly post about weed with abandon. Twitch apparently allows consumption on streams if the user is in a sanctioned legal market, but that could change as advertisers weigh in — after all, Twitch recently became yet another social media platform to censor boobs.
It might seem logical for a company that makes money selling ads to enforce bans on illegal content, but cannabis isn’t illegal everywhere, and where it remains so, people beg for reform. A Pew research poll found that 91% of Americans support federal legalization, rendering a ban by social media platforms borderline authoritarian.
Not everyone is looking to monetise their content on these platforms — for most, it’s simply a way to socialise. Penalising people’s content because of monetisation is unfair, but brings home a key point about these forms of media to keep top of mind: if it is free, YOU are the product. If you are the product and they can’t sell it, you’re not marketable to them.
Ting also brought up the elephant in the chat room, the recent whistleblower reports about Facebook’s moderation policies, or lack thereofL “In light of the revelations from Facebook, social media platforms are acutely aware as to how much the content on their platforms create cultures and communities, and while they’ve taken the position of the benevolent content moderator, we now know that cannot be further from the truth. What remains true is that the content creators are core to defining, creating and sharing culture, and cannabis is part of our cultural zeitgeist.”
Motives for censorship
Anonymous online collective The Greed Rush has been using social media to reach the public with their industry analysis on hypocrisy and fraud in cannabis.
When asked via DM about canna-censorship, they shared something illuminating: “Social media censorship of cannabis has persisted for years. After a long drag off a joint, one may wonder whether big tech is creating a problem in order to present an eventual solution: a progressive social media platform that allows for, or even encourages, cannabis and psychedelic content as those sectors continue to emerge. What reasons does big tech have to suppress the industry? Answering that question would likely lead one down the rabbit hole.”
Before the big reports dropped a few weeks ago, we could only suspect that profit was a motive in the suppression of cannabis content; we still have zero concrete proof, but it certainly feels much more certain now. Requests for comment from Facebook were not answered as of this writing. (Duh.)
How to avoid the block/shadowban
Amnesia and others who work closely with content creators and brands that deal with cannabis have to adapt to changing algorithms and expectations, but CEO Wu has some tips for protecting your account from the banhammer:
- Focus on telling your unique story instead of focusing on just featuring products or a ton of consumption.
- Avoid images of anything that resembles cigarette packaging.
- Avoid combining cannabis and alcohol in your content.
- Don’t attempt to make direct sales or post content that could be construed as an active attempt to make a sale (ie. a product launch, discussing prices, or even using money related expressions like “bang for your buck”.)
- Stick to a consistent process for checking what you post on social media before posting.
It may seem like a minor inconvenience that people can’t always post weed stuff, but between its medical usefulness and its cultural importance, this censorship is harming people’s livelihoods, income, and sense of community. If social media companies like Facebook have a problem with weed because they can’t monetise it, that’s bad — for us.
What people want from social media platforms doesn’t always match up with what they want to allow, true enough. But considering how much hate speech manages to stay up, even after being reported, while nipples and smoke clouds are penalised and removed, it they don’t exactly feel like safe spaces for everyone.