Facebook’s advertising policy interferes with documentary film

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Two years after embarking on her latest film project, Mary Janes: The Women of Weed, Windy Borman’s movie was finally and officially done, set to premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in early October.

A non-cannabis user, Borman never expected she’d make a film about cannabis, although she says it’s about so much more than that. The narrative she curates about the emerging industry focuses on the extraordinary amount of women in its positions of leadership, 36 percent to be exact, and a full 14 percentage points higher than the average of women executives across all U.S. businesses.

But just as the film exited production, Borman was met with disheartening news. According to a 2017 Marijuana Business Daily survey, the number of women in leadership positions in the cannabis industry was plummeting, falling to just 27 percent.

“Seeing those numbers made me realize how important it is to release this film today because gender parity is a conversation we have to have now, not two years from now,” Borman says. “The longer we put it off, the harder it’s going to be to fix. Now more than ever we need to hear from the women pioneering in this field.”

To push the conversation, her social media team devised an aggressive strategy in hopes of generating the buzz necessary to attract national film distributors. On Sept. 12, they kicked off their campaign by releasing the film’s trailer on Facebook and within two hours, it had racked up 100,000 views.

As is typical, the post’s organic reach began to taper off by midday. To give it a boost they paid for an ad on Facebook that targeted their 8,000 adult fans, those they thought were most likely to buy tickets or otherwise spread the word and share the news. But this, a more or less typical social media marketing strategy, was met with a rather atypical obstacle when they received the following message:

“You’re boosted post wasn’t approved. It didn’t meet this Facebook advertising policy: your ad can’t promote illegal activity, products or services.”

At first Borman says she figured it was an honest mistake. In her time making the documentary she’d learned that in between statewide legalization and federal prohibition exists a vast gray area of legality in cannabis, one that can confuse simple things like advertising.

“But I gotta say, it’s not gray when it comes to documentary film — it’s black and white,” Borman says. “Whether or not the industry is illegal has nothing to do with the rights of a filmmaker to document, dramatize, think, make art or advocate. This is a film that is asking questions in hopes of providing answers to the increasing number of Americans curious about cannabis. And, as far as I understand them, we are 100 percent compliant with Facebook’s policies.”

It’s been a month since the Mary Janes team first disputed Facebook’s decision, repeatedly reaching out to the company in hopes of figuring out why their ad was being blocked and what they could do about it. But, aside from one interaction with an actual human being, the team found themselves caught talking in circles with a bot that just wouldn’t budge.

The word on the tip of Borman’s tongue is censorship and as a filmmaker she’s deeply concerned about what Facebook’s action to block her ad says about the right of educators to educate, artists to express, advocates to advocate and, more generally, people to think and speak freely.

“This is really making me second guess whether Facebook is a company that I as a filmmaker want to be associated with,” Borman says.

After speaking with Borman I reached out to Facebook for comment. They explained their ad and content policy (no promotion of illegal activities or drugs is permitted) and why (a proclaimed social responsibility). And when I inquired into the specifics of the Mary Janes paid post that had been blocked, the company issued what amounts to an “oops.”

Initially, the ad should have been blocked (they say it’s the bots job to catch potentially non-compliant content), but it should have then been re-approved, whether organically or by a result of the film’s filed disputes. Further, Facebook admits to being mistakenly under the impression that the block had already been removed and immediately took action to see that it was once they learned of their error.

Just like the cannabis industry does not appear to be making lasting achievements in gender parity, Facebook does not appear to be intentionally censoring cannabis content, a reminder that, in the still young world of legal cannabis, it’s sometimes difficult to discern the firmness of the ground on which we stand. Moments that feel like permanent victories or defeats are rarely so concrete.