On Thursday, social media giant Facebook announced a significant change to its search algorithms. For months, the platform had directly censored cannabis-related search results and shadowbanned pages, events and posts by cannabis groups. After the change, however, Facebook says users can now search for and view content about cannabis. Facebook maintains it censored weed content due to concerns about illegal drug trafficking. But pushback from multiple groups, including industry associations, legalization advocates and cannabis consumers, ultimately forced Facebook to change its policy. Now, pages that Facebook “verifies” with its blue or grey symbols will show up in search results for cannabis-related inquiries.
Last month, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), a leading U.S. cannabis trade organization, began calling on Facebook to stop blocking and banning cannabis-related content. After none of Facebook’s official channels produced any results, the NCIA took a crowdsourcing approach, starting a change.org petition and spreading the word to advocates, regulators and others in the industry.
Within the first week, the petition received more than 20,000 signatures. Now, the petition is up to 23,000 and rising. The petition specifically demands that Facebook cease censoring marijuana-related content posted by legal businesses and cannabis policy advocates. Yet the blanket ban on any search with marijuana, cannabis and other related language had the effect of censoring and banning everything.
Users couldn’t access pages for advocacy groups like the Marijuana Policy Project. They couldn’t look up information about cannabis-related events, including public hearings about legalization policy or drug reform. Medical cannabis patients couldn’t search for licensed caregivers in their area, or browse dispensary pages. Industry associations couldn’t get the word out about educational events, conferences, or important new regulations. The NCIA says Facebook even blocked posts about their annual Lobby Days in Washington, D.C., an event that has nothing to do with marijuana products.
The NCIA also says Facebook was shadowbanning popular, well-known cannabis news sources in addition to posts from government agencies. In Canada, for example, users could not search for and find results about government entities like the Ontario Cannabis Store.
Eventually, Facebook took heed of the increasingly vocal calls for a change to its content policies about marijuana. And with adult-use legalization about to take full effect in Canada in less than a week, and more U.S. states getting ready to vote on marijuana measures, their change, of course, could be very significant.
Pages and users will still need to obtain verification from Facebook. Public figures, media companies or brands can get a blue verification symbol. Businesses or individuals get the easier-to-obtain grey checkmark. Businesses or other groups simply need to provide a public phone number to Facebook and complete a few authentication factors. According to Facebook, entities with either a grey or blue verification will show up in search results. All others will continue to be blocked, as will any content related to any other illicit drug.
It has been a tough few months for Facebook. Senate hearings over data breaches and election meddling, decreasing numbers of active users, new privacy laws and economic regulations have all plunged Facebook’s share price. Allowing access to content that’s not only relevant but crucial to a majority and increasing number of Americans is one way the platform can revive its relevancy as a source of news and information. It may even help connect Facebook with new users.