Facebook Has ‘Shadow Banned’ Cannabis Related Pages

Something’s up with Facebook and marijuana—again.

Recently, pages with “marijuana” and “cannabis” in their names stopped appearing in search results.

The phenomenon is known as “shadow banning,” in which posts on an online social community such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram become invisible to users searching for them.

Facebook has shadow banned content that mentions the words cannabis, marijuana, marihuana, THC, or ganja. The ban includes all pages, groups, posts, photos, and events that include the aforementioned marijuana monickers. Even government cannabis control agencies like the California Bureau of Cannabis Control are banned from search.
The pages are still active and can be found via direct links, but users without the URLs or bookmarks are out of luck, leading to questions about whether the social network is “shadow banning” the pages.

Facebook already rejects any cannabis advertising and blocks cannabis news articles from its algorithm. So, while not entirely shocking, it’s cause for major concern, especially after YouTube decided haphazardly, and without explanation, to delete all cannabis-related channels and videos this Spring.

Unlike Youtube, Facebook has not yet deleted cannabis content. The cannabis pages, groups, etc. are still available by direct link.

Critics charge the new search filter is the most recent example of Facebook enforcing community standards inconsistently for marijuana businesses and affiliated organizations. “It’s ridiculous,” said Mason Tvert, the vice president of public relations and communications at VS Strategies, a Denver-based cannabis consulting firm. “(Marijuana is) a major political issue at the federal level, as well as in many states. There’s no rational reason for blocking searches involving the word marijuana when it’s such a popular topic of discussion.”

Among MJ businesses, inconsistencies in how and when the Facebook search ban occurs — and how it’s applied — have raised concerns about the potential impact on companies’ bottom lines. One recent example of the fallout: You could not find a company like Maine’s Summit Medical Marijuana dispensary in a Facebook search result. You could, however, see two of its competitors, Canuvo and the Wellness Connection.

A spokesperson for Facebook declined to be quoted for article but acknowledged the company’s methods for enforcing community standards and filtering search terms is imperfect. In statements the spokesperson said:

  • Facebook uses a combination of technology, human review and community reports to enforce community standards.
  • Mistakes are made. If something was removed that shouldn’t have been, reviewers quickly work to restore it.
  • Facebook is actively making it harder for users to find content that facilitates the sale of opioids or other drugs on its platform.
  • The social media site has filtered search results for many terms associated with drug sales. In some cases, such a search will only return links to drug-related news articles or permissible information that is shared on Facebook.
  • As a result, users may see inconsistent results related to specific search terms.

The fallout is far reaching — from state cannabis regulators to licensed businesses and more.
In addition to MJ businesses, cannabis regulators, advocacy organizations and trade groups are among the victims in Facebook’s latest attempts to filter search results related to “marijuana” and “cannabis.”

The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), for example, stopped appearing in some Facebook searches last week. Similar issues reportedly zapped the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) and Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Their pages still exist, but the change to Facebook’s search filters makes them more difficult to find.

If you search “Bureau of Cannabis Control,” “Marijuana Policy Project” or “National Cannabis Industry Association” on Facebook, you’ll see no results. By contrast, search “MPP” or “NCIA” and their pages show up — at least at the time this story was written.

The inconsistencies don’t stop there. Type in “CalCannabis,” the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s cultivation licensing page on Facebook, and it’ll be one of the first results you see. Search for “Drug Policy Alliance” and “Ganjapreneur” and they pop up, too.

Typically, the BCC’s posts reach about 4,000 users, Traverso said. Last week — when the bureau’s page stopped appearing in some search results — that reach was cut in half and only about 2,000 users interacted with some posts. To make matters worse, it’s a crucial time for cannabis businesses in California. They only have until Aug. 27 to comment on the state’s permanent MJ regulations, and the BCC uses its Facebook page to promote public comment events and encourage licensees to participate in the process.

Now, however, that content is harder to find on Facebook. “We’re doing what we can to continue to try to work all our other communication channels that much more to get people the information they need,” Traverso said.

The problem: Facebook has been one of the state cannabis agency’s more reliable ways to share news and events with its followers, he said. The BCC has even paid to have posts promoted on the site. “From our point of view, we’re not a cannabis business,” Traverso said. “We’re a state agency. We don’t sell cannabis products. We don’t advocate for the use of cannabis.

“We’re strictly informational, and we use the site as a way to communicate with people about the work we do and to be transparent about the work we’re doing.”

Following the rules doesn’t ensure you’ll be found.
Social media specialists have provided best-practice recommendations for using social media platforms like Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram. Experts note that users can appeal when their pages are removed. But it can often be an exercise in futility.