Illegal drug ads on Facebook highlight problems with AI moderation

Despite Facebook’s automation insisting ads for LSD, magic mushrooms don’t violate company advertising policies, Meta says they’ll work on improving their moderation system

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Facebook’s parent company says it will improve its content-monitoring system after the platform initially declined to remove ads selling illegal drugs because they didn’t violate the company’s advertising policies.

But industry observers say the company’s reliance on inconsistent automated moderation systems could pose problems as the Trudeau Liberals roll out their new online harms legislation.

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Christopher McGrath, a senior manager at Deloitte Canada, said he began seeing ads for illegal drugs on Facebook that he believes were triggered by algorithms while he was researching a recent report  on the illicit cannabis industry in Canada

After National Post reported on the cannabis study last month, the reporter also started seeing scores of Facebook ads selling everything from tax-free cigarettes and illicit cannabis to LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

When the ads were reported to Facebook, the platform responded with a message that the ads did not violate Facebook’s advertising standards.

A message from Facebook's automated moderation system that an ad selling LSD doesn't violate the platform's advertising standards. The ad was eventually removed after the National Post contacted Facebook for comment.
A message from Facebook’s automated moderation system that an ad selling LSD doesn’t violate the platform’s advertising standards. The ad was eventually removed after the National Post contacted Facebook for comment.

This, says 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.”

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Objectionable content reported by users is automatically analyzed to determine if it requires a closer look by human eyes, but as many users often lament, that seldom happens.

One of the ads from an illicit Canadian mail order cannabis business, advertised psilocybin-infused edibles for sale.

Another featuring jars filled with magic mushrooms declared the drug “life-changing” and offering 20 per cent off for new orders.

One seller, presented on Facebook as an adhesives company, featured an ad saying “please buy my mushrooms and LSD,” while another featured a woman with three eyes holding a marked bottle of LSD and offering two- to three-day shipping within Canada.

In a statement to National Post, Facebook’s parent company Meta insisted its policies don’t allow such ads.

“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 read.

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“We’ll continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep our platforms safe.”

Some of the ads for illegal drugs served by Facebook.
Some of the ads for illegal drugs served by Facebook.

The spokesperson said ads brought to their attention by National Post were deleted, their ad accounts suspended and associated pages unpublished.

Just one day after that statement was received, however, pages and ads that had been flagged were either still active or were re-created.

Michael DeVillaer, a drug policy expert and assistant professor with McMaster University, said the problem is related both to the platform and Canadian policy.

“Government doesn’t seem to be too worried about illegal ads, whether by licensed or unlicensed companies,” he said.

“So neither the legal or illegal companies are too worried. Even good policy is useless if it is not enforced with meaningful consequences for infractions.”

In a new book, Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis, DeVillaer documents 32 separate cases of web advertising by illegal cannabis sellers referred to the RCMP by Health Canada. After a two-year wait on an access-to-information request on the status of those referrals, he said he has never found out what, if anything, was done.

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Another explanation for the increased visibility of these low-quality advertisers, Caraway said, is the ongoing decline of the digital advertising market.

With high-profile advertisers increasingly abandoning online marketing, platforms and websites are becoming less selective about the ads they choose to run.

“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.”

Among the measures introduced this week by the government’s new online harms bill are content guidelines for social media platforms and enforcement frameworks meant to hold the tech companies accountable.

“One of the threats that could come from this online harms bill is there could be monetary penalties for platforms like Facebook if they’re found not being compliant,” Caraway said, which could prompt some unorthodox ways of ensuring their online ads are compliant.

“In the same way that they kick users off, maybe they’ll start to police their advertising marketplace with a little bit more enthusiasm than they appear to be right now.”

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