Facebook users recently discovered their searches for “marijuana” and “cannabis” no longer display results.

Here’s what happened when CannaContent conducted a search of the term “cannabis” on Facebook on August 4, 2018:

Nothing. Plain ‘ol nothing.

What the hell is going on?

Marijuana Moment reported on Aug. 1, 2018 that Facebook pages, groups, and events – including pages managed by government entities and regulatory bodies to disseminate key compliance information – no longer appear in search results. While those already engaged with a certain group, page, or event can see its content, those outside cannot find it easily. Yet again, a social media platform is causing difficulties around cannabis. And it sucks.

This phenomenon is called a “shadow ban” (sometimes written as “shadowban”). What exactly is a shadow ban? Why did Facebook enact a shadow ban? What can you do to promote your business or brand on Facebook while the shadow ban is in place?

What is a shadow ban?

A shadow ban is when a social media platform allows a page or profile to continue posting content, but that content will not appear in search results. The user often does not know that their content is subject to a shadow ban. They continue to post as normal without repercussions.

These types of bans are used to curtail the attention paid to a certain profile or subject. Facebook and other social media platforms use it to curb the spread of spam. It has also been used to quash the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Once a shadow ban is in place, there’s no warning or indication that it’s been set in motion. People simply figure it out when their content experiences a significant drop in engagements.

Why did Facebook enact a shadow ban for cannabis?

As of the writing of this blog post, Facebook has yet to officially clarify why the shadow ban was enacted. However, social media platforms discouraging or outright banning cannabis content is nothing new.

Federal policy, social media, and cannabis content are at constant odds. Facebook’s advertising guidelines outline that platform users cannot “constitute, facilitate or promote illegal products, services or activities,” with an additional clause that ads cannot “promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs.” Twitter, Instagram and other platforms have similar policies. (It’s important to note that these restrictions can apply to hemp-derived CBD and hemp products as well.)

Despite these content and advertising bans, cannabis communities flourish on Facebook, sharing information, education, and yes, plant-touching and ancillary business information. These communities and pages are so active that it can be easy to forget that posting is technically against the rules. This just happened on YouTube earlier this year, when thousands of cannabis videos were removed when a review found that those videos violated the platform’s terms of service.

Considering the other actions Facebook could have taken – suspensions and deletions are not uncommon – it really could be worse. Your page, groups, and events are likely still up and running. It’s the discovery of new content that the shadow ban will likely affect the most.

So, how can you navigate the shadow ban’s murky waters?

How can cannabis businesses navigate Facebook’s shadow ban?

  • Use hashtags… for now. Normally, using a hashtag on Facebook won’t make much of a difference. As of the writing of this blog post, content appeared in search results when a hashtag was placed in front of the keywords #cannabis and #marijuana.
  • Share content within your networks. The shadow ban did not delete groups, pages, events, and the like from Facebook – it just makes them extremely difficult to find. You may need to work a little harder to deliver content to your intended audience for the time being, so take advantage of the tools already at your disposal. Share your next sale or testimonial with a cannabis-centric Facebook community you already joined.
  • Explore the “related” column. As of this writing, the “related” column attached to events, groups, and pages is still producing cannabis-related results without any special tricks. Exploring this channel can help you discover other cannabis-centric communities on Facebook. While you’re at it, share those groups, events, and pages themselves with other “cannapreneurs” to help them expand their networks.
  • Do a quick audit of your business profile. Make sure your page is not blatantly breaking one of Facebook’s rules against promoting “illegal” products. While the shadow ban and your images are not directly related, it only takes a scary and uncertain change to remind the cannabis community that these platforms are not as safe as we thought.
  • Use related keywords that aren’t shadow banned. As of this writing, slang like “420” and “weed” is still searchable, and related terms such as “bong” came up as well. These searches will likely reach different audiences than “cannabis” and “marijuana,” but these two groups do have some overlapping interested users.
  • Step it up on other platforms. If Facebook is Goliath, then Instagram is David gearing up a slingshot. The visuals-driven platformadded 200 million daily active users between September 2017 and June 2018, and its cannabis community is thriving. There are millions of posts associated with the #CannabisCommunity and #Weedstagram hashtags. If your business or brand is not as active on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest or other platforms, this may be a good time to experiment.

Will Facebook’s shadow ban on cannabis last forever?

As of this writing, it is not yet clear if this is a temporary experiment or a permanent change. Facebook has yet to make any official statement.

To take down thousands of pages that share valuable education, opinions, and information isn’t exactly good press, especially now that Facebook is suffering from one controversy after another. Is a shadow ban Facebook’s way to satisfy legal obligations while still allowing the platform’s users to post information? We won’t know until there’s an official answer from someone at the company, but what we do know is that there’s a hell of a lot of precedent for Facebook to do so.

In the event that the shadow ban is lifted, simply continue with your regularly-scheduled programming. In the meantime, maybe you’ll find a new way to effectively promote your business.