Social media platforms already walk a fine line when it comes to policing content. The problem is only growing as cannabis goes mainstream.
Take TheWeedTube, a site with hundreds of creators posting marijuana-related content. Arend Richard, the 31-year-old chief executive officer, learned earlier this month that his firm’s Instagram feed was disabled without explanation. It was another blow for an industry that has had content taken down, material made harder to find through alleged algorithm “shadow bans” and accounts removed and reinstated for unclear reasons, he said.
“We have no idea why we were deleted,” Richard told me. “We had no warnings, or anything saying we had violated any terms or conditions.”
As cannabis becomes legal in more places, social media is emerging as an important place for entrepreneurs and brands to build a following, particularly as traditional advertising channels are limited by state and local laws. Suddenly losing access to a platform can be devastating.
“Instagram will let you build a following and then rip your whole career away from you and not explain,” Richard said, noting that some other social media companies have clearer rules and will remove cannabis posts immediately.
An Instagram spokesperson said it’s “constantly re-evaluating our policies and working with experts to ensure we are in the right place.” The company didn’t comment on TheWeedTube’s deletion or the allegations of “shadow bans.”
“We try to write policies that adequately balance freedom of expression and safety, but doing this for a community of a billion people from all corners of the world will always be challenging,” Instagram said in a statement.
Most platforms, including Instagram, treat cannabis as a “regulated good,” the same as pharmaceutical drugs. But their wording leaves gray area around content that may be promotional without explicitly selling marijuana, or material that’s marijuana-related without being explicitly promotional.
Twitter, for example, states that it “prohibits the promotion of drugs and drug paraphernalia.” YouTube says that content that facilitates the sale of marijuana, or links to sites that sell, aren’t allowed. Instagram’s policy prohibits “attempts by individuals, manufacturers and retailers to purchase, sell or trade” marijuana.
“Social media platforms are in a tricky situation,” said Josh Horn, co-chair of the cannabis law practice at Fox Rothschild LLP. “They face unique exposure because any posts on social media that promote the cultivation, manufacturing or sale of cannabis could be seen as aiding and abetting the commission of a federal crime under the Controlled Substances Act.”
There are signs that social media companies are warming to the industry. In an email exchange, Dustin Robinson, founding partner of Mr. Cannabis Law, pointed to Twitter, which is allowing hemp-derived CBD products to be marketed under some conditions.
“We are seeing these platforms start to inch closer toward accepting cannabis,” he said.
Richard, whose own firm was started in 2018 after his “gay stoner” account was kicked off YouTube, said determined posters are finding ways around restrictions. TheWeedTube, which has had 5 million unique users since 2018, is planning new platforms -- just as the site was a take on Youtube, the new offerings will riff off the chat rooms of ClubHouse, the text streams of Twitter and the quick video clips of TikTok.
Besides, he added, there are other tricks. Richard said on TikTok there are examples of users spelling “weed” as “ouid” to circumvent bans.
“We adopted that at WeedTube,” he said. “Now we’re OUIDtube.com.”
“The challenge for these social media platforms is enforcing the policy. Who decides what is and what is not proper? What if one popular site has a more liberal content policy than another? Does the more conservative lose out then on the green market boom? There is no easy answer to this conundrum until there is true federal cannabis reform, but I suspect that is a long time away,” said Josh Horn, co-chair of the Cannabis Practice Group at Fox Rothschild LLP, in an email exchange.