The Complex Problems at the Intersection of Cannabis and the Internet.

Figure 1: Cannabis and the Internet, (Blaine Mitchell)

According to Forbes contributor Lindsay Bartlett “Challenges facing the cannabis industry on social media apps including Instagram and Facebook have come to a crisis point” (Social media minefield). It’s pretty much accepted as gospel that a social media presence is a necessity for the success of modern businesses. For businesses (as well as other people and entities) in the emerging world of legal cannabis, this is presenting some unique challenges. Those are challenges that social media companies and society in general are grappling with as well. Dustin Walsh, writing in Crain’s Detroit Business, demonstrates the antagonism of the government to both cannabis and, at the moment, the big tech/social media companies, and how that has impacted the way big tech engages with the cannabis community (Marketing Smoke Screen). This quote from Derek Devries, with public relations firm Lambert & Co illustrates the situation “The feds already don’t like this industry and Google, Facebook, etc. aren’t exactly best friends to Congress right now.” Devries goes on to say”They are the easy linchpin to go after (to harm the marijuana industry). So they are just steering clear right now, leaving the industry to find different ways to approach marketing” (Marketing Smoke Screens). With society, via Congress, taking an increasingly hostile view of the effects of social media on the public, the social media companies have responded by de-platforming, shadow banning, and otherwise sidelining the cannabis community, presumably to demonstrate some sort of pro-activity that will appease angry legislators.

Figure 2: Social media bans on cannabis content. Photo by Blaine Mitchell

One problem with the approaches taken by social media companies is the disparities in actions taken against different members of the cannabis community. Instagram’s policy states they prohibit quote “attempts by individuals, manufacturers and retailers to purchase, sell or trade” marijuana, but cannabis video sharing platform Weedtube says “This policy is not enforced equally, with large multi-state corporations being allowed to promote their products and locations, while smaller, independent operators lose access to their Instagram pages” (Legal Cannabis Industry Launches). In an article found on Benzinga, Weed tube CEO Arend Richard highlights these disparities with examples like the case of @BuyWeedFromWomen. He asks “why would a page for a brand like @BuyWeedFromWomen be disabled when their primary goal is not to sell cannabis but to encourage social equity within the cannabis space”( The Big Problem With). Richard goes on to point out that large, multi-state brands like Ignite, that have a link in there bio page directly to a cannabis marketplace, are allowed to thrive on Instagram. Lindsey Bartlett highlights efforts such as a petition on Change.org to bring Meta, Instagram’s parent company, to the table in an effort to develop a better, more uniformly enforced policy around different aspects of cannabis content on the platform.

Figure3: Shadow Banning Cannabis. Photo by Blaine Mitchell

Another way social media platforms are censoring cannabis content is in the form of shadowbanning. A shadow ban is when a page is left up, and can be accessed with a direct link, but won’t show up in feeds and searches. One must already have the URL to get there. Forbes contributor Lindsey Bartlett states “you would notice reduced reach and reduced interaction. You won’t receive a formal notification when you’ve been shadowbanned, it is your content being “secretly” restricted”( How Your Cannabis Comp.). Marijuana Moment contributor Chris Roberts highlights one particular case of interest when discussing the case of The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (Is Facebook shadow banning Marijuana). This is the government entity tasked with regulating commercial cannabis in the state of CA, and they were shadowbanned . Roberts goes on to point out that news organizations like Marijuana Moment and MJBiz Daily have experienced shadow bans as well. Bartlett quotes Chris Beals, CEO of cannabis tech company Weedmaps in relation to Weedmaps own issues with shadowbanning and closing accounts on Instagram“Given cannabis is still largely banned from most major marketing channels, the deactivation on Instagram was demonstrative of the ongoing censorship that companies in cannabis continue to face” (Social Media is a Minefield). However, as figure 4 demonstrates with a screenshot of Facebook’s Prohibited Content page,the platforms are the sole power in deciding what is acceptable (Facebook Prohibited Content). And in Bartlett’s article, the piece about Facebook’s 2019 demonstration of the AI singling out pictures of cannabis mixed with pictures of broccoli and shadowbanning the accounts associated with the cannabis pictures, we see just how much power they have.

Figure 4: Facebooks prohibited content/drugs

These platforms are private businesses, and in our capitalist, free market system, we can choose to enter into a contract with them, or not. If we do, we are bound by the terms of the agreement we entered into. For better and for worse, this is the system we have allowed to evolve. At the same time, the products these platforms represent have become aspects of key infrastructure to our society. They are the public squares, and as much a place for the exchange of ideas as any in history. This creates a 3-way tension between government, business, and the individual that has not been resolved. The complexities around changing relationships between society and cannabis offer an acute look at the consequences of failing to reconcile those tensions.

Works Cited

Arend, Richard. “The Big Problem With Cannabis Censorship on Social Media.”, Benzinga, Feb 08, 2022 https://www.benzinga.com/markets/cannabis/22/02/25453326/the-big-problem-with-cannabis-censorship-on-social-media

Bartlett, Lindsey. ” How Your Cannabis Company Can Avoid a Shadow Ban on Social Media.”, Forbes, Jan 31, 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindseybartlett/2021/01/31/how-your-cannabis-company-can-avoid-a-shadowban-on-social-media/?sh=4235da51ce0a

Bartlett, Lindsey.” Social Media is a Minefield For The Cannabis Industry. Are Solutions On The Horizon?”, Forbes, Mar 16, 2022 https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindseybartlett/2022/03/16/social-media-is-a-minefield-for-the-cannabis-industry-are-solutions-on-the-horizon/?sh=1fdde93d47e7

Roberts, Chris. “Is Facebook Shadow Banning Marijuana Pages, Including Government Ones?”, Marijuana Moment, Aug 01, 2018 https://www.marijuanamoment.net/is-facebook-shadow-banning-marijuana-pages-including-government-ones/

Ruiz,Julia. “Legal Cannabis Industry Launches Petition Demanding Updates To Instagram’s Community Guidelines.” AP News, Mar 22, 2022 https://apnews.com/press-release/pr-newswire/technology-censorship-2aef783e9849d23e1aa08ecf477f4d0c

Walsh, Dustin. “MARKETING SMOKEhttps://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.delta.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=b9h&AN=138093867&site=eds-live&scope=site SCREEN: As Social Media Ad Platforms Bar Marijuana Marketing, Young Industry Turns to Old Platforms, Invents New Ones.” Crain’s Detroit Business, vol. 35, no. 32, Aug. 2019, p. 10. EBSCOhost,