Cannabis Censorship on Social Media
There is a grey area surrounding cannabis on social media platforms. What violates terms of service seems to apply to some user accounts, but not others with similar content.
For example, Justin Hancock, Manager at the House of Leaves Medford location, has had a number of issues with hosting the business' content on social media platforms - both Facebook and Instagram.
He says Facebook was first to shut down their account. “We opened up a personal account on Facebook and they shut us down, saying we had to make a business account," Hancock says. "So, we opened up a business account and they shut us down, saying we can’t have a marijuana business.”
He's run into similar problems with Instagram, a photo and video-sharing app owned by Facebook. The platform has now shut down the House of Leaves business account three times for unknown reasons. "We weren’t sure if it was anything we did specifically or if it was just that we are a marijuana dispensary,” Hancock says.
When their account was shut down, House of Leaves received an email from Instagram saying they had violated their policies, but Hancock says the email did not cite a specific violation.
“You go to log on and it says, ‘This account doesn’t exist.’ It’s automatically gone and you have to start a new one," Hancock says. "We’ve lost all our followers, account information, and pictures.”
For a small business trying to succeed in our current technology-driven climate, this is no small obstacle. Each time House of Leaves is shutdown on Instagram, they are forced to change their handle. Hancock says that the original gets deleted, so they’ve had to add numbers after the business name. “It’s very embarrassing and looks wonky; it doesn’t flow,” he says.
Hancock says he believes their account keeps getting shut down due to Instagram thinking they are selling cannabis through the app.
Written into Instagram's Community Guidelines, under a section titled "Follow the law," the platform states, "Instagram is not a place to support or praise terrorism, organized crime, or hate groups. Offering sexual services, buying or selling firearms and illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region) is also not allowed. Remember to always follow the law when offering to sell or buy other regulated goods."
While this does shed light on Instagram's terms of service, it does not explain why some accounts are repeatedly shutdown when others are not. House of Leaves is on their third account, but other dispensaries have been able to retain their following - whether their accounts are listed as private or public - despite all of them having similar content that features cannabis flower, product lines, sales and other business announcements.
Hancock explains that social media is something more prevalent now than it ever was. When their account gets shut down, their followers aren’t alerted of the change, so they don’t know to look for a new account. “Even all of our hashtags that we originally set up are gone," Hancock says. "They’re still out there, but they won’t ever be linked back up to us.”
House of Leaves had a video produced showcasing some of their products. Hancock says the video showed prices, which he believes led to their third Instagram getting deleted. “Right after the video was posted [the account] got shut down. We’re not trying to violate anything. We’re not trying to do anything wrong," he says. "We are just trying to brand our company and let people know who we are.”
It's difficult to rebuild the following after each account is deleted. The dispensary would like to be able to use the platform to tell their followers about what is offered in-store, but marketing the business puts them in a difficult position because they fear getting shut down again.
“All our followers are able to see is black and white. They don’t get to see the fun and the experience," Hancock says. "There’s so much we could put on social media to allow people to feel comfortable before they come in, but we have to let them find out everything on their own as they walk in the door.”
Not only has it affected business in terms of customers, the account deletions have impacted House of Leaves’ business relationships. “We’ve had a few individuals with large followings, like rappers, that we’ve sponsored. They were going to shout us out [on their accounts] and unfortunately, they couldn’t," Hancock says. "If we could get a shout-out from someone who’s famous, that would mean a lot. We’ve missed that boat.”
“I really wish that Instagram would back off a bit and allow us to be treated like the legal company that we are," he says. "We follow the rules."