Social Weedia: Cannabis Companies Struggle Through Stringent Social Media Policies

Written by BlackbirdGo February 19, 2019
The History

Imagine trying to market a product that can’t be advertised on television or radio. To make things even tougher, Facebook and Google won’t allow this product to have any sort of ad space, making the internet pretty unhelpful in marketing this product as well. This is the problem that most cannabis businesses—regardless of whether they are dealing with recreational weed, medicinal weed, or both—are currently facing. At this point, only one solution truly remains: social media, such as Instagram or Facebook. This, however, is as much of a problem as it is a solution. As federal regulations surrounding cannabis are getting more and more welcoming, social media sites are not keeping up with this pace. Businesses that deal with cannabis are routinely finding their Instagram and Facebook accounts disabled, or worse deleted, regardless of their following. Blackbird has actually had our Instagram account shut down three times! Online communities would seem like the perfect place to market cannabis, but, in reality, the posting and advertising policies for social media sites continue to make cannabis business and advocacy harder than it should be.

Facebook, and its subsidiary Instagram, are favored platforms for companies posting about cannabis. However, both platforms have very strict policies surrounding what can and cannot be posted. For starters, both sites do not allow posts that advertise cannabis products. Facebook’s policy states, “ads must not promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.” This is a seemingly clear policy that, unfortunately, is enforced in unequal and vague ways. Accounts are screened by both humans and algorithms, a system that has resulted in unjust denial of use of these services for many businesses. A study conducted by the Washington Post asked Instagram if they would re-review sixteen accounts that had recently been deactivated due to alleged policy violations. Instagram reported back that eleven of them had been rightfully deactivated, while five of them had been deleted erroneously. This goes to show that both the human and algorithmic screening processes involved in upholding these policies are often flawed and applied unfairly. This also means that accounts that, at times, do provide cannabis advocacy and education also fall into this hole of deletion, unjustly and to great detriment to both their brand and, often, the communities that they serve.

Facebook and Instagram users have also taken issue with the lack of specificity in these platforms’ policies. These policies don’t specify whether or not videos and images of cannabis are allowed. Additionally, their policies state that drug-related paraphernalia and images of or implying recreational drug use are not allowed in ads on their platforms. However, this rule doesn’t take into account organic posts that aren’t advertising any product specifically. Even more frustrating, in order to discourage the sale of cannabis, businesses are often finding themselves in trouble for listing their brick and mortar addresses or telephone numbers in their bios. Basic information like this could result in an account being deactivated.

There are very real ramifications to these accounts being deleted. It is easy to be dismissive of these deletions, because, at first glance, it seems like a trivial issue. However, it’s an issue that runs the risk of threatening the ability for cannabis businesses to thrive and, furthermore, allows the potential for harm within communities who are being served by these businesses. Brands that have had their accounts shut down complain about how this may result in a loss of financial capital, sure, but many also claim that, when they lose their accounts, they are losing their ability to maintain relationships with people who use their products. This relationship often extends outside of a monetary exchange and progresses into a dialogue about the many ways weed can help improve a person's quality of life. When cannabis businesses have to re-create their accounts, they aren’t allowed to use the same username, which means that previous customers now have to jump through hoops to be able to find these companies.

To combat the ever-present threat of deletion, brands are operating through various loopholes. Some are turning to influencers with large social media followings and asking them to promote their products, while others are asking other publishers to promote their products. It’s also not uncommon to find brands that have created fake Instagram accounts in order to pre-screen advertisements before they post it on their real account (as it is better to lose a fake account than it is to have to recreate and reestablish a brand account all over again). In the past, many have tried not listing the prices for their products, not providing a link back to their websites where purchasing their products is an option, and even making their accounts private, but taking these measures has not proven to be successful. Adding to the frustration of this guess-and-check system is that, in cases where accounts are deleted or deactivated typically without a reason why being provided, entrepreneurs have often appealed this action only for Instagram to claim that it was a mistake or an accident and then reinstate their account. Social media simply isn’t a sustainable avenue for marketing cannabis, but it is, unfortunately, one of the only ways to do so.

Experts have suggested that cannabis companies use their social media accounts in the same ways that alcohol or cigarette companies use theirs: explicitly limit their content to those 21+ or 18+ and never show any promotional content with people using the product, only the promise of what happens when they do. Unfortunately, even in states where weed is legal, these platforms write their guidelines in accordance with federal law. Thankfully, the promise of legislative change and ease of social media use for those in the cannabis trade is on the horizon.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.