If you type the word "marijuana" into the search bar at Facebook today, you might be surprised at what comes up. Rather, you might be surprised at how little comes up.
Here's what you get when you look for pages with "marijuana" in the name:
There are, in fact, many pages on Facebook that have the word "marijuana" in the name. Some of them are activist organizations, media outlets, and even government agencies. But last night, Marijuana Moment writer Chris Roberts noticed that these pages are not showing up when you search on Facebook. The pages still exist, and if you have the URL for them, you can still visit them. But if you don't know where they are, Facebook is not going to tell you.
This is what's called "shadow banning." Rather than deleting or censoring pages, Facebook is making them hard or impossible to find. Marijuana Moment is itself affected by the shadow ban. Here's their Facebook page. But if you type "marijuana moment" into Facebook's search engine, it was not coming up this morning. No groups, posts, or events with "marijuana" in the name come up on searches. News stories about marijuana do, but only video stories.
Roberts notes that social media sites have been struggling to figure out how to deal with marijuana content as the plant itself becomes increasingly legal:
Advertisements for marijuana businesses or advocating cannabis use are regularly blocked on Facebook and other social-media websites—including Instagram, which is also a Facebook property—for violating community standards, which ban the sale of "illegal drugs."
Algorithms often block promotions for news articles or other noncommercial posts that merely mention "marijuana" or "cannabis," a situation that often requires lengthy appeals processes to clear automatically flagged content that doesn't actually violate terms of service.
This shadow ban went so far as to block searches for the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, the agency that oversees the regulation of the legal recreational marijuana industry in the state. Roberts notes that their Facebook page is a clearing house of information on upcoming meetings and regulatory decisions. A spokesman told Roberts they have not gotten an explanation from Facebook as yet as to why this was happening to them.
Roberts reached out to Facebook for an answer as well, but hasn't yet gotten one. Reason also emailed Facebook's press office to find out if these shadow bans are intentional. We have not yet gotten a response.
Facebook, of course, has the right to decide what sort of content should be permitted on its platform. Allowing marijuana organizations and government agencies on the platform but then blocking them from search results, though, seems more like a thing they're doing to appease nanny-state and drug-warrior regulators who will accuse them of fostering criminal enterprise—even though allowing these pages to appear in search would hardly qualify. And Facebook is being increasingly put in a position where not responding is not an option. Even Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who helped craft the part of the law that protected internet platforms from being punished for illegal third-party content, seems to be weakening on his resolve.