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Instagram decision to remove ayahuasca post overturned by Meta Oversight Board

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The board said parent company Meta should be more respectful of spiritual practices

Meta’s independent Oversight Board overturned an Instagram decision to remove a post about ayahuasca
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Oversight Board for Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta has overturned a decision by the photo-sharing app to remove a post that discussed ayahuasca. The board found that while the July post from a spiritual school in Brazil violated a Facebook rule against promoting the use of non-medical drugs, it did not violate Instagram’s community guidelines “as they were articulated at the time.” The board said Meta needs to be clearer when it applies Facebook rules to Instagram content.

“The Board is concerned that the company continues to apply FB’s Community Standards on IG without transparently telling users it is doing so,” it wrote in its decision. The Instagram rule at the time of the removal only covered the sale and purchase of illegal or prescription drugs, the board added. “The Board does not understand why Meta cannot immediately update the language in Instagram’s Community Guidelines to tell users this. Meta also did not tell the user in this case what part of its rules they violated.”

The Oversight Board further took issue with the stated reason removing the post: to protect public health because “the user described ayahuasca with a heart emoji, referred to it as ‘medicine,’ and stated that it ‘can help you.’” The post discussed ayahuasca in a religious context, and the school didn’t post instructions for using the drug. The board recommended Meta change its rules on regulated goods to be respectful of diverse cultural practices, “to allow positive discussion of religious issues of non-medical drugs which have a recognized traditional or religious use.”

Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic, usually prepared as a tea that provides a high, which can include hallucinations. It’s traditionally used as a spiritual and ceremonial medicine by people in the Amazon.

The Oversight Board also released its third-quarter transparency report on Thursday and said between July and September, it had received 64 percent more cases, or 339,000, for possible review than it had in the second quarter. Among the cases it was referred, about 34 percent were related to Facebook rules on bullying or harassment, 30 percent had to do with violence and incitement, and 23 percent were related to concerns about hate speech.

And of the 25 recommendations from six decisions the Oversight Board made in the quarter, Meta said it would implement more than half of the decisions “fully” or “in part.” The Oversight Board — a Supreme Court for Facebook / Meta — heard its first cases in December 2020. It’s meant to interpret company policies but not make new ones.