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The Cognitive Dissonance of Drug Censorship on Social Media

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The Cognitive Dissonance of Drug Censorship on Social Media

On November 16, I posted an Instagram reel promoting a fully legal South African herb called kanna in collaboration with the Healing Herbals supplement brand.

The video immediately generated public interest and discussion in the relatively obscure herb across Instagram, as well as on several other platforms where I posted the clip. Real, traceable people shared their personal experiences with kanna, best practices for consumption, scientific information about the plant (including links to academic resources), and more in a constructive and informed, transparent public discourse.

Two hours later, my 25,000 follower Instagram account and professional network at @mycopreneurpodcast was permanently deplatformed, despite having no warnings or previous strikes upon my library of content,  which includes hundreds of similar, original videos and posts from the previous three years. A final, ambiguous and automated Instagram / Meta ban was effected with the explanation that my account “doesn’t follow our Community Guidelines on guns, drugs, and other restricted goods,” according to Instagram.

The kanna video that triggered the ban remains up on my TikTok and Twitter accounts, where the same library of content I’ve accrued remains unaffected and in good standing with the community guidelines on those platforms. 

While I don’t know for sure what led to the ban, the best I can figure is that the kanna supplement advertisement triggered an algorithmic sensor, which immediately suspended my account for 60 days with the chance to appeal. Knowing I’ve done nothing wrong, I appealed immediately. Within an hour, I received the message that my account had been permanently disabled. Why? I presume it’s  because a closer AI-driven analysis of keywords used across my channel showed that I often share information about psychedelics. 

For legitimate and lawfully-compliant small businesses and platforms in the psychedelic or cannabis space, being deplatformed is something of a rite of passage. While mainstream outlets like CNN, National Geographic, Oprah and ESPN have repeatedly devoted primetime coverage and shown unabashed enthusiasm for psychedelics over the last few years, social media platforms have taken to censorsing and deplatforming individuals and companies who talk about them.

Shifting policies and inconsistent, arbitrary censorship across different social media platforms contribute to a scatter-brained, fragmented cultural dialogue and public opinion on psychedelics and cannabis. 

The impact of throttling transparent and educated public discourse around psychedelics ultimately extends beyond the livelihoods of individuals working in these emerging markets, and directly into warping public perception of these substances as they enter the cultural mainstream, with no coherent approach to regulation and education guiding the process.

The irony of it all is that psychedelics and drugs have never been easier to obtain, and the peer economy upheld via social media accounts has everything to do with making it happen. Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Reddit are absolutely filled with faceless, depersonalized accounts advertising bulk quantities of federally-illicit substances delivered via discreet shipping worldwide. Some of these accounts are obviously scammers, but many more are not. 

Global society has a collective cognitive dissonance when it comes to how we think and feel about psychedelics, cannabis, and drugs in general. Policy in the United States currently reflects a divided approach to these substances.Half the country seems to favor legalization and regulation, while the other half doubles down on prohibitionist rhetoric. 

My account was banned on the same day that a number of other respected public figures across the psychedelic and cannabis spaces were also impacted by heavy-handed and arbitrary censorship. 

In the same few hours that cannabis industry executive Luna Stower received restricted functioning on her Instagram account after a Meta photo sensor (photo censor?) picked up a “community guideline” violation on a sign held up by a group of women cannabis visionaries at an event celebrating their contributions to the multi-billion dollar industry, my Twitter timeline randomly started populating with anti-cannabis, prohibitionist public policy think tank posts from the likes of notorious anti-cannabis alarmists Kevin Sabet and Parents Opposed to Pot.

The cognitive dissonance represented in drug messaging across social media and in society at large devalues centrist, informed and nuanced sensemaking, and encourages radical positions in favor of, or opposition to, psychedelics and cannabis.

Psychedelic and cannabis companies, influencers and advocates often circumvent the AI-algorithmic sensors by modifying their spelling of “weed” to “w33d,” and using emojis like the immortal red and white amanita mushroom character or a frog icon in place of the substances they’re referencing. When people are speaking, they might use creative phrasings or even bleep out the words “weed” and “psilocybin,” etc.

This censorship evasion infantilizes the discourse around psychedelics and cannabis, which is exactly what happens on either side of the cognitive dissonance around these substances. 

My stubborn commitment to accurate vernacular may have ultimately cost me my highest traffic social media account. Beyond a fragmented and illogical public discourse, the impact this deplatforming can have on legitimate small businesses and creators is profound. After organically building a global network of professionals and collaborators over three years of daily content posting, an ambiguous and AI-triggered infraction tied to a fully legal substance destroyed the entire ecosystem I’d painstakingly cultivated with no clear reason why. 

For small businesses and creators like myself, this account held tremendous value and served as a launchpad to opportunities around the globe including high-profile speaking gigs and features in mainstream platforms like Forbes and High Times, where the same messaging that got me banned by Meta is celebrated and platformed before a much larger audience than the 25,000 followers I had on Instagram.

In fact, the same week I was deplatformed from IG over “community guidelines” violations, the same content earned Mycopreneur ‘Media Company of the Year’ at the Third Annual Wonderland Awards, where fellow nominees included multimillion dollar pharmaceutical companies and public figures like Andrew Huberman and Paul Stamets.

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The impact of ambiguously-selective censorship and deplatformring of psychedelic social media accounts is disastrous for empowered public discourse. People who have cultivated a position of cultural influence through their transparent perspectives and educational outreach on these platforms are continuing to be robotically assessed as untrustworthy of participating in the digital public square that regularly platforms egregious misinformation and acts of state sanctioned violence, as well as non-science based drug propaganda portraying entheogens as illicit and dangerous substances.

So many important perspectives and brands have had the plugs pulled on their social media accounts that being deplatformed essentially becomes a badge of honor and a rite of passage. 

The fear-based response whereby legitimate psychedelic and cannabis accounts must walk on eggshells and self-censor their content is a race to the bottom for public safety. As social media has become the de facto public square for people to connect with each other and learn about what’s happening in the world, it behooves everyone for tech companies to exercise more due diligence and discretion when restricting and censoring certain accounts. 

Possible responses could include a weighting of the professional and actual human connections an account has, as indicated by publicly available information and cross-referencing. If an account has thousands of legitimate and public professional connections that they are tagged alongside at industry events and dinner parties, it stands to reason that they are more legitimate than an account with no personal photos that is explicitly selling drugs. This simple assessment of the network surrounding and supporting a person or brand engaged in these emerging industries should be enough to warrant free speech on these heavily-censored topics But at the moment, we have incapable and illogical AI-driven algorithms determining the legitimacy of an individual or brand that shares information about psychedelics and cannabis. 

Perhaps most alarming is the fact that paying tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue per month is one of the most acceptable ways to remain above a platform’s “community policy.” Ketamine clinics regularly advertise on Instagram, despite Ketamine remaining a Schedule 3 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. 

There are also numerous psilocybin companies advertising via Meta-approved and sponsored “boosted posts.” It’s increasingly common for targeted ads offering microdosing subscriptions and psilocybin mushroom chocolates to reach people who have shared psychedelic content or information on their pages. These targeted ads include respective pricing in U.S. dollars, Mexican pesos, and euros, indicating that this Meta-approved and boosted illicit substance trade is worldwide. The posts themselves don’t disclose any words that would set off sensors, but simply clicking on the ads and visiting the company website will reliably prove that these items are, in fact, the controlled substances that they are surreptitiously being advertised as.

The future of psychedelics, cannabis, and other drugs in society is being shaped by public discourse happening today on social media. It’s time to stop infantilizing the conversation around these substances, and push back against draconian censorship and deplatforming of independent brands, journalists and activists who dare to speak and share openly about their personal experiences and perspectives on psychedelics. Only then will we have a truly humane and logical drug policy and corresponding global markets.

Image of kanna, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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