Marijuana-related companies, regulators and trade groups around the globe recently stopped appearing in Facebook searches, becoming casualties in what appears to be the social media platform’s latest attempt to filter results related to “marijuana” and “cannabis.”
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, to be sure, has shuttered thousands of pages belonging to cannabis businesses and related entities over the years. But the social media giant also allows MJ businesses and related entities to maintain pages – provided they don’t violate the platform’s community standards.
That’s why the latest developments are raising alarm bells among MJ companies. Many rely on Facebook to engage with consumers and educate people about marijuana and MJ products.
“While Facebook has held a pretty hard line on advertising, which cannabis companies have been dealing with for years, this a big hit to cannabis businesses and brands,” observed Rosie Mattio, founder of New York’s RMPR, a public relations firm that works with marijuana businesses. “A company’s social pages are as important, if not more important, than their website.”
Here are some of the MJ industry’s main concerns surrounding the situation — and Facebook’s response.
1. Questions and inconsistencies swirl around Facebook’s search policy — and raise concerns about financial fallout.
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.
Another example: While Ontario-based Aphria appears in search results, Alberta-based Aurora Cannabis doesn’t — even though marijuana is federally legal in Canada.
2. Facebook’s response leaves many questions unanswered.
A spokesperson for Facebook declined to be quoted for this article but acknowledged the company’s methods for enforcing community standards and filtering search terms is imperfect. In statements provided to Marijuana Business Daily, 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.
3. 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.
4. The situation is having an impact on regulatory efforts.
Facebook is a vital part of the California BCC’s communications strategy, said Alex Traverso, the bureau’s chief of communications. But the social media giant’s new search filtering tactics have had a big impact on the state agency’s ability to reach its 10,000 followers.
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.”
5. 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.
“I’ve followed the rules to a ‘T’ on Instagram and lost an Instagram account,” said Amy Donohue, the owner of Hybrid Social, a Phoenix-based social media firm that works with several Arizona dispensaries. “Even if you’re playing by the rules, you’re still vulnerable to being taken down.”