Brazen Drug Ads Wreak Havoc Thanks to Meta’s Facebook Ad Algorithms

It’s open season for flagrant ads to sell illegal drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and other drugs, as Meta works to improve its algorithms to filter illegal content. Because content is being filtered by algorithms, not human beings, sometimes the wrong content—i.e. educational cannabis material—gets taken down while brazen ads to sell drugs remain up.

Some journalists are fed up with the double standard. A Canadian reporter said he was able to get an ad for LSD approved on Facebook, leading a Meta employee to finally remove the ad after the reporter reached out for comment. The National Post reports that Facebook’s automated moderation system approved an ad selling LSD, saying the ad doesn’t violate Meta’s advertising standards. The ad was eventually removed after the reporter contacted Facebook for comment.

Christopher McGrath, a senior manager at Deloitte Canada, said he began seeing ads for drugs on Facebook that he believes were triggered by algorithms while he was researching a recent report  on Canada’s black market cannabis trade.

Deloitte Canada’s report, “Clearing the Smoke: Insights to Canada’s Illicit Cannabis Market,” was supposed to provide data on illegal cannabis sales, but McGrath’s research for it only triggered an onslaught of various cannabis ads on Facebook. So on one hand, Meta wants to filter that content, but on the other, also market ads to users looking for items like cannabis.

University of Toronto media economics professor Brett Caraway, is due to the reliance social media platforms place in machine learning and automated algorithms to police their content.

“When these platforms started, they had departments full of people—actual humans—to sift through the most toxic and horrible parts of the internet,” he said.

“With the amount of content that goes up every minute, there’s just no way humans can put eyes on everything, so they rely increasingly on algorithms and AI for the first round of filtration.”

Facebook responded to The National Post’s inquiries with the following, explaining that when those ads are found they are taken down: “We prohibit content—both in ads and in organic content—that promotes the buying and selling of pharmaceutical and non-medical drugs, and remove it whenever we find it,” the statement reads. “We’ll continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep our platforms safe.”

Experts wonder if the decline in online advertising is playing a role and if Meta can’t spend enough on moderation. 

“We’ve seen a lot of major players cut back in the money they’re spending,” Caraway said.

“But Facebook needs that [money]—so if Chrysler or BMW leave, then they have no choice but to take on Jimmy-Bob’s Cannabis Store. Their business model is literally 98-per-cent advertising funded, so they don’t have any wiggle room.”

Facebook and Instagram are known for targeting cannabis-related accounts in various waves, taking steps to cut back on illegal drug content. In October of 2018, Facebook placed a pause on cannabis searches. The site justified the ban saying users were selling marijuana products through the social network. Soon, the ban would be lifted

The platforms Facebook and Instagram will close an advertising loophole, joining other tech companies amid the “great vape scare” that took place in 2019. In 2019, an Instagram spokesperson said that Facebook and Instagram will start removing posts that promote vaping, tobacco, or weapons.

Companies that make totally harmless products—such as organic soap and care products manufacturer Dr. Bronner’s—reported posts and ads getting taken down. Dr. Bronner’s experienced similar issues with its boosted posts back in June 2017. 

The company received this response from Facebook after some of its ads were inexplicitly taken down: “This ad isn’t running because it doesn’t follow our Advertising Policies. We don’t allow ads that promote prescription or recreational drugs. Ads like these are sensitive in nature and are usually contrary to local laws, rules or regulations. Please keep in mind that advocacy or awareness ads are allowed…”

Eight Tulsa, Oklahoma-based medical cannabis businesses said that the platform was subjectively censoring their Facebook pages.

A group of cannabis businesses said they have been negatively affected by social media bans, and they are no longer taking the alleged discrimination lying down. Led by the Ye Olde Apothecary Shoppe, eight dispensaries have announced that they are suing Facebook executives over what they call “a pattern of targeting the Oklahoma medical marijuana industry.”

Efforts are being made to control drug ads on social media, particularly in Canada. In Canada, a new online harms bill includes content guidelines for social media platforms and enforcement frameworks meant to hold the tech companies accountable. In newer legislation,  Meta itself would be penalized if it let illegal drug ads stay up.

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