Bess Byers is really sick of having her Instagram account disabled.
She’s tired seeing her cannabis-related content removed, of trying to log into her account only to find an error message and of filing personal and commercial appeals daily for weeks. Byers, a Seattle resident known as Cannabess on social media, is a writer and photographer who often features images of the cannabis plant and fashionable people smoking it on her Instagram account.
Her complaints to Instagram have yielded a reply email notifying her that her account was “disabled by mistake.” Yet after her account was disabled, then reinstated, three times since August 2018, Byers, 31, wants the powers that be to know that she and others in the online cannabis space are fed up.
That’s why Byers has declared Oct. 6, 2018, Cannabis Blackout Day, a digital day of protest in which Byers urges the cannabis community — weed consumers, medical marijuana patients, cannabis advocates and influencers, industry employees and entrepreneurs — to stay off of Instagram for the entire day.
To show the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform how large and active the cannabis community is, Byers is calling for “no posts, no stories, no [direct messages], don’t even scroll.”
Oct. 6 also marks Instagram’s 8th anniversary, an important date that doesn’t escape Byers.
On Sept. 26, 2018, Bess Byers, known as Cannabess, calls for a #CannabisBlackoutDay on Instagram after her account has been disabled three times. The digital protest coincides with the social media platform’s 8th anniversary on Oct. 6, 2018.
It’s an ambitious endeavor, and one that after several years of social media turmoil fueled by removed content, deleted and shadow banned accounts, and lost followers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, Byers believes a protest may be one of the only recourses left.
“I want to help make our community heard,” Byers told Marijuana.com. “I want Instagram to see how much engagement the cannabis community brings to their app and what it would look like if we all left.”
Many in Byers’ cannabis community and industry network have responded that they will support her, including the Ladies of Paradise. In an Instagram story, the cannabis-centric brand/group of women that uses Instagram to compile chic and cool cannabis content, is asking its more than 34,000 followers to “take a break from Instagram to show just how influential the cannabis industry is.”
When Nikole Trickler, 24, sees accounts deactivated, she sees more than a loss of content that’s at stake. Tricker, an assistant buyer for a cannabis brand and a social media influencer based in Seattle, Washington, told Marijuana.com that the shut-downs are especially discouraging “when we’re trying to make a strong point that this industry is capable of success, capable of being normal.”
And it’s not just the sense of community at stake — it’s also personal and industry network connections.
“For me, it’s a lot of connections lost,” Trickler said. “I have met so many people through Instagram.”
Byers has nearly 95,000 followers on Instagram; Trickler has nearly 69,000. Many influencers make backup accounts to recoup losses, but it’s often insufficient. Byers’ backup Instagram account has only around 10,000 followers.
Cannabis-related content and accounts aren’t the only ones to being targeted on Instagram and similar social media platforms. Rolling Stone reported in August 2018 that many online communities and subcultures have grown suspicious of Facebook’s views on free speech and censorship, or its ability to address either.
Karen North, a social media expert and professor at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, said it’s within the rights and responsibilities of social media companies to set and enforce their own content policies.
“Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, all the social media platforms are actually private businesses and they can establish their own codes of conduct,” North told Marijuana.com. When users agree to a social media platform’s terms of services, they agree to codes of conducts set by a private business. When these platforms remove content or deactivate accounts, they aren’t infringing on users’ civil rights or Freedom of Speech, but simply enforcing their own rules.
Byers’ approach takes this reality into account. In her online petition, Byers acknowledges that it’s Instagram’s playground and their rules to set, though she aims for more transparency and cannabis acceptance.
“I just want some sort of statement. Some sort of reply. In an ideal world, Instagram would release a statement saying, ‘We respect state’s rights. We respect changing laws. And we’re going to allow cannabis pages to get verified,’” Byers said. “[The cannabis community] will comply. Just please give us a statement.”
But with cannabis remaining a Schedule I drug, and illegal at the federal level, Byers and the cannabis community she represents most likely won’t see a change Instagram’s Terms of Service.
“Cannabis, as an industry or commerce, is legal in some states, but illegal federally,” North pointed out. “These platforms have to abide by federal law.”
Additionally, North explained that “safe-harbor” provisions protect online platforms from copyright infringement if they establish effective “notice-and-takedown” procedures to quickly remove flagged content.
A protest like Cannabis Blackout Day may not be enough to force action from Silicon Valley, however.
“I doubt that people will notice any decrease in users in that demographic,” North said, noting that the cannabis demographic is too small to be tracked by the social media giants.
About 17,000 supporters signed the online petition Byers started in August 2018, calling for Instagram to update its terms of service to allow cannabis advocates and influencers to post content without fear of censorship. Instagram cites more than 500 million actives a day. If every person who signed Byers petition refrained from using Instagram on Oct. 6, they would account for a loss of 0.0034 percent of Instagram’s daily activity.
To put it further into perspective: Byers’ petition has a new goal of 25,000 signatures — the same number of people who signed up to use Instagram on its first day, according to Instagram’s Oct. 6, 2010, inaugural blog post. A drop in the digital bucket.
“Frankly, I don’t think it’s going to be effective,” North concluded. “I’d be happy to be proven wrong.”
Even Byers is realistic about the potential for a response from Instagram: “I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Byers sighed.
Still, Instagram remains an important tool for influencers like Byers and Trickler to find their audience and voices, which makes this small fight in the face of large opposition all the more crucial.
“One of the most beautiful things about the evolution of digital media and social networks is that people can find like-minded people in a way that has never in the history of the world been possible,” North explained. “When people have esoteric interests, concerns, private interests, health concerns, addiction problems, or interests in things that are illegal or unpopular, then they can find like-minded people to communicate with. So when these communities emerge … it’s important that people can find comradery and friendships based on that.”
“I’ve connected with some people on Instagram who have become, not just real-life friends, but real-life best friends,” Byers said. “It’s helped me connect with so many brands, and really grow who I am, what I’m about, causes that I advocate for. And that’s why it’s so important to not be censored within the cannabis industry.”