Marijuana buds and tempura broccoli can look oddly similar out of context, but Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology can tell the difference.
At its annual developers conference on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer discussed how the social media giant is able to leverage visual AI to spot “policy-violating content,” including advertisements to sell cannabis on the platform. He explained the process by comparing images of the fried vegetable next to marijuana buds, which he described as the “most benign possible example” of prohibited content he could find.
— Queenie Wong (@QWongSJ) May 1, 2019
Five years ago, the company relied on “behavioral signals” to catch people advertising cannabis—things like whether the advertiser has been “caught for doing bad stuff before” or whether they used “obvious words” like “marijuana” or “drugs” in the post. But as AI advanced, Facebook developed a system that could visually distinguish cannabis from other miscellaneous items.
To drive the point home, Schroepfer put both images on the screen and challenged the audience to differentiate them.
— Tom Simonite (@tsimonite) May 1, 2019
A few people thought the tempura broccoli was marijuana, but most seemed to get it right. The visual algorithm was 94 percent sure that the marijuana was, in fact, marijuana, and 88 percent sure that the other image was the broccoli.
— john colucci (@johncolucci) May 1, 2019
For Facebook, the technology offers a convenient way to streamline its policy enforcement efforts. But for many cannabis reform groups and media companies that run Facebook accounts, the presentation is a window into an ongoing frustration.
The ban on content promoting the sale of federally illicit drugs has had collateral consequences for pages that post noncommercial marijuana material such as news outlets like Marijuana Moment and state regulatory bodies like the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. These pages have at times been hidden from search results (a technique referred to as “shadowbanning”) because the algorithm isn’t able to accurately differentiate commercial advertisements from cannabis-related news articles, for example.
Marijuana influencers and state-legal cannabis businesses have long complained about having their accounts on the Facebook-owned Instagram platform temporarily disabled or permanently blocked for depicting cannabis or advertising their services.
A policy change may be on the horizon, as the company said in March that it wants “to consider whether we can loosen this restriction, especially in relation to medical marijuana, legal marijuana and brick and mortar stores.” But for the time being, Facebook will continue to enforce the policy, and it hasn’t provided a status update on that front at the conference so far.
“It’s against our policies because it’s against U.S. federal law, so you can’t advertise marijuana on Facebook,” Schroepfer said.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.