Facebook Agrees to Stop Blocking Marijuana-Related Searches

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Facebook Inc. is ending a monthslong block on cannabis and related search results for pages on its platform, MarketWatch reported Oct. 12, 2018. The change took effect within days of Canada’s legalization of adult-use marijuana sales.

Marijuana-related search results for categories such as posts, pages, and events were filtered by Facebook within the past year to exclude content from cannabis companies and organizations. The algorithm was in place because people had been using the platform to sell marijuana in violation of its policies, a Facebook spokesperson told MarketWatch.

As of Oct. 11, 2018, Facebook members around the world will be able to find cannabis-related pages that carry the company’s gray and blue verification symbols via search terms such as “marijuana.”

For cannabis companies and government-related groups, the gray and blue check marks will provide greater visibility within cannabis-related searches. A blue check mark, according to the MarketWatch report, is reserved for public figures, media companies, and brands. The gray check mark verifies the authenticity of all other cannabis organizations and businesses eligible for verification.

To receive a gray check mark, a business is required to give Facebook a publicly listed phone number of an organization and then enter a four-digit verification code into an automated call from the company, among other requirements, MarketWatch reported.

Under the cannabis-related changes to Facebook’s algorithm, pages with gray and blue check marks will now show up in the results for searches including “cannabis,” “cannabis groups,” and “marijuana businesses.”

“We are constantly working to improve our search results so that we minimize the opportunity for people to attempt illicit drug sales while showing content that is allowed on Facebook and is relevant to what you are searching,” Facebook spokesperson Sarah Pollack wrote in an emailed statement to MarketWatch. “When searching ‘cannabis’ or ‘marijuana,’ pages that have been verified for authenticity will now be included in search results.”

Facebook has confirmed that only pages with blue and gray check marks will be visible in cannabis-related search results.

Before Oct. 11, 2018, according to tests run by MarketWatch in the U.S and Canada, users were not able to find Facebook pages for Canadian government entities such as the Ontario Cannabis Store — an online shop run by the most-populous Canadian province — via Facebook search.

In the United States, users weren’t able to locate state government pages such as the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. U.S.-based advocacy and industry groups, such as the Marijuana Policy Project and the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade lobbying group, were similarly invisible via cannabis-related terms within Facebook search, according to MarketWatch.

Critics of these cannabis-related search result blocks have called Facebook’s practices “shadow banning,” as reported by Marijuana Moment in August 2018. Shadow banning is partially blocking access to a user’s content from an online community. When a user is shadow banned, they can still create posts and pages on a social media platform — Facebook and Twitter being the most prominent — but their content is basically invisible to all other users and impossible to find through full searches. As reported by the New York Times, the practice and use of the term has led to confusion, frustration, and disagreement among platform users.

According to the MarketWatch report, Facebook still intends to experiment with different content enforcement methods alongside the change to its algorithm, including alterations to cannabis-related searches.

MarketWatch also reported that alterations to Facebook’s cannabis search results arrive as more countries around the world legalize medical cannabis, and eye recreational use. Since 2014, the number of countries looking into legal cannabis frameworks has risen from four to 25. Nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have already legalized adult-use cannabis, and 31 states allow for medical marijuana use.

But for now, it may be a signal that Facebook has gotten a bit more with the times, according to Mason Tvert, a spokesman for Marijuana Policy Project, which aims to reform laws against cannabis possession and use.

“It’s about time that Facebook caught up with the majority of Americans who think that marijuana should be treated like a legal product,” Tvert told MarketWatch. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a broader evolution in this subject and hopefully they will be starting to treat marijuana like other content.”

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