Like a lot of folks, we’re fans of social media. While there are definite downsides, the ability to share art, activities, resources, and cats with the people around us is a lot of fun.
But one thing us folks in the cannabis industry have run into with social media, Instagram specifically, is bannings. Cannabis accounts are constantly running the risks of being taken down, shadow banned, or deleted entirely. Some of us have faced those deletions a few times.
So while there’s not a whole lot we can do about the algorithm, we still wanted to chat about it: how to minimize your risks, what triggers the Instagram ban bots, and some measures you can take to keep yourself and your account safe(r).
Meet Our Interviewees
In order to get a more experienced opinion on the algorithm and Instagram experiences, I’ve taken time to interview two people within the space:
Shannon, a mom of 2 who started Weed Mama in order to educate about how cannabis can benefit tired moms, and for other moms to find a place where they feel accepted in their choice to use cannabis. Check out her website at weedmama.ca, her Instagram @therealweedmama, and her YouTube @weedmama.
And Zack, our very own social media and marketing guy, who not only manages our Instagram account but also reviews and edits all of the articles I write.
While Weed Mama chats more about Instagram specifically, Zack offers some interesting insights about complying with the marketing regulations found in the Canadian Cannabis Act. For the purposes of this article, I’ve kept most of this post in interview format, using the responses shared by Weed Mama and Zack.
What’s your experience with Instagram shadow banning, account suspension, and other regulations?
Weed Mama: “In 2022 I had my account suspended 5 times for reasons unknown. Each time my account was back after a day or 2. I also had a story removed that I shared from another account that wasn’t my own, even though I disputed it, there’s a penalty on my account even though the original image is still on that persons account.
It’s very hard being a cannabis account as you’re constantly censored and you always run the risk of having your account deleted.”
Zack: “Our LoFi account was taken down once before, so that was interesting. Just being on Instagram as a cannabis business, you see everyone around you fall and then come back with backup accounts. In our case, it was surprisingly easy for us to get our account back, which was really nice, but that’s not the experience I’ve heard from a lot of other people. Like Weed Mama – every few months she seems to have her account taken down. In terms of shadow banning: we have been flagged by the recommendation guidelines which basically means our stuff won’t show up on the Explore, Reels, or Feed Recommendations. Essentially only people who follow us will see our content. And this seems to be the case for many people and brands in the cannabis industry on Instagram.”
On Algorithms and Bans
So what’s the deal with cannabis and Instagram? Why don’t they like it?
Weed Mama: “It’s illegal federally in the United States, even though it’s legal federally in Canada, so we still have our accounts removed. Canadian cannabis stores get targeted the most.”
Zack: I think there are a lot of layers to it, probably. It’s a global marketing platform, essentially, and cannabis isn’t legal everywhere. So Instagram has to create a sort of blanket policy to not get in trouble with different regulations in different places. This makes it challenging for us though, especially when it comes to shadow banning.
To the best of your understanding, how does Instagram choose to ban certain things?
Weed Mama: “It’s all bots, and machine learning right now and they often get it wrong. Unfortunately there’s not much we can do about it. They are trying to compete with Tik Tok and getting younger demographic so they crack down on content with cannabis and anything sexual.”
Zack: I think hashtags are a big one. You can’t hashtag anything with cannabis because it’s all banned hashtags and nothing will show up on Instagram when you look it up. It seems to be a tough thing to assess, but just reading stuff online about shadow banning and being careful with marketing is a good place to start. Instagram uses keywords, captions and alt-text, so how you’re describing your imagines, and the image itself, your caption, the hashtags you’re using, all those impact it.
Navigating the System
What can you do to keep your account safer if you want to post about cannabis?
Weed Mama: “Basically changing any cannabis word to make it indistinguishable, don’t post anything for sale or have links to cannabis products for sale, that’s what they crack down on the most.”
Zack: I think it’s really tricky. One thing I learned coming into the industry is that it’s all about risk assessment. When in doubt go back to the Cananbis Act, specifically section 17 and see if you are ticking any of the boxes.
One thing that Lofi did was creating a brand and revolving it around something that wasn’t directly cannabis related. We’re promoting art and community and focusing a lot of our efforts around that, so if you can, finding a way to not explicitly talk about cannabis is an option. Of course that isn’t a possibility for everyone, especially retailers and LPs. Or something I see a lot of people doing is informational science and facts, and promotion through that lens seems to be a way that works.
The really tough thing about Instagram is that their recommendation guidelines stop promoting content that is a “Depiction and mention of content relating to marijuana". That basically means if the bots flag you for this then your content won't show up on the Explore page, Reels, and Feed Recommendations to people who don’t already follow you.
The Community Guidelines are the ones you really want to watch out for because that is where your account can get taken down. In the community guidelines it says they “remove content [that] attempts to trade, coordinate the trade of, donate, gift, or ask for non-medical drugs, as well as content that either admits to personal use (unless in recovery context) or coordinates or promotes the use of non-medical drugs.” So basically, try to be clear that any promotional cannabis content is not for sale on Instagram. This is something I definitely see a lot of people doing now.
What are the highest and lowest risk things to post on Instagram when it comes to cannabis? Are there some hard rules about what you can’t post? Things that slip by easier?
Weed Mama: “I never tag anything, if I do I don’t use any cannabis tags. I also change the letters in words like weed or cannabis to numbers, in pictures as well as they scan images for that content. I also am very careful about product reviews especially vaporizers now as they remove those posts the most frequently.”
Zack: People smoking, animals, characters, or testimonials are pretty high risk. Avoid using the word cannabis or weed if you can. Also avoid sharing or posting anything that explicitly violates the Cannabis Act provisions – like people who don’t have 19+ on their Instagram bio. Price and distribution piece can be challenging to navigate, especially for retailers, but promoting any of that information also comes with its own set of risks.
In terms of lower risk, stories could be considered lower risk because they are gone after 24 hours. You are allowed to promote Cannabis and Cannabis accessories in a through “informational promotion” so keeping to facts and science is a safe bet. Also setting your account to private or at least adding “19+ only” to your bio will help for sure.
Another thing that’s pretty interesting is when reposting other people’s content on stories or something like that, under the Cannabis Act you can be liable for reposting 3rd party content. So basically, if someone breaks the rules, and you repost it, you could get in trouble too. Having a quick reference list that you can understand is a good idea to come back to before you post something to see if it hits any of those marks. That way you know where your risk stands.
One final thing that I found out recently was that you can actually check your standing to see if any of your posts have been flagged by the recommendation guidelines, or community guidelines. Recommendation guidelines If you go to your Profile and click the top right hamburger menu > Settings > Account > Account Status you can see if any posts have been flagged, and which posts they are.
Ideas for the Future
How would you like Instagram policy to change in the future in order to be less crappy for cannabis posting?
Weed Mama: “For one, Canadian accounts should be exempt as its legal here, perhaps when someone makes an account with Instagram they have to give their age and if they’re underage they can’t see adult content. Some kind of age restriction that doesn’t hide us from searches would be good as then we don’t have to censor ourselves so much. I would also like to see educational accounts, advocates and farmers to be exempt from censorship; it’s far too strict right now.”
Zack: People go to school to learn how to interpret legal policy and social media algorithms. So if your account does get taken down, give yourself a bit of grace. It all seems like part of the process at the moment. There’s no right way to do it, but that’s just the nature of it now. It can be very anxiety inducing.
A big part in developing better policy, I think, is really the science and education piece. This can be challenging because there were all these years of history of this really bad narrative around cannabis, so changing the view around it takes time. The laws getting a bit more flexible and societally being more comfortable around the topic of cannabis is going to be the biggest turning point in our ability to promote cannabis. You look at like beer commercials, and we’re just not at that point yet. Eventually, we’ll be able to make these dumb commercials that’ll be fun, and people will have more of an understanding of cannabis.