Oversight Board Overturns Meta's Decision in Ayahuasca Brew Case

On October 28, 2021, Facebook announced that it was changing its company name to Meta. In this text, Meta refers to the company, and Facebook continues to refer to the product and policies attached to the specific app.

The Oversight Board has overturned Meta’s decision to remove a post discussing the plant-based brew ayahuasca. The Board found that the post did not violate Instagram’s Community Guidelines as they were articulated at the time. Meta’s human rights responsibilities also supported restoring the content. The Board recommended that Meta change Facebook and Instagram’s rules to allow users to discuss the traditional or religious uses of non-medical drugs in a positive way.

About the Case

In July 2021, an Instagram account for a spiritual school based in Brazil posted a picture of a dark brown liquid in a jar and two bottles, described as ayahuasca in the accompanying text in Portuguese. Ayahuasca is a plant-based brew with psychoactive properties that has religious and ceremonial uses including among Indigenous groups in South America. The text states that “AYAHUASCA IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE THE COURAGE TO FACE THEMSELVES” and includes statements that ayahuasca is for those who want to “correct themselves,” “enlighten,” “overcome fear” and “break free.”

The post was flagged for review by Meta’s automated systems because it had received around 4,000 views and was “trending.” It was then reviewed by a human moderator and removed.

Key Findings

Meta told the Board it removed the post because it encouraged the use of ayahuasca, a non-medical drug. The company stated that “the user described ayahuasca with a heart emoji, referred to it as ‘medicine,’ and stated that it ‘can help you.’”

The Board finds that while the content violated Facebook’s Regulated Goods Community Standard which prohibits content which speaks positively about the use of non-medical drugs, it did not violate Instagram’s Community Guidelines which, at the time, only covered the sale and purchase of illegal or prescription drugs.

Meta’s international human rights responsibilities support the Board’s decision to restore the content. The Board is concerned that the company continues to apply Facebook’s Community Standards on Instagram without transparently telling users it is doing so. 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 Board also disagrees with Meta’s claim that prohibiting positive comments about ayahuasca was necessary in this case to protect public health. The post, which mainly discussed the use of ayahuasca in a religious context, was not closely linked to the possibility of harm. The user did not post instructions for using ayahuasca or information about its availability.

To respect diverse traditional and religious practices, the Board recommends that Meta change its rules on regulated goods to allow positive discussion of traditional or religious uses of non-medical drugs which have a recognized traditional or religious use.

The Oversight Board’s Decision

The Board overturns Meta’s decision to remove the content, and requires that the post be restored.

As a policy advisory statement, the Board recommends that Meta:

  • Explain to users that it enforces Facebook’s Community Standards on Instagram, with several specific exceptions. Meta should update the introduction to Instagram’s Community Guidelines within 90 days to inform users that if content is considered violating on Facebook, it is also considered violating on Instagram.
  • Explain to users precisely what rule in the content policy they have violated.
  • Modify Instagram’s Community Guidelines and Facebook’s Community Standard on Regulated Goods to allow positive discussion of the traditional or religious uses of non-medical drugs where there is historic evidence of such use. Meta should also make public all allowances to these policies, including existing allowances.

For Further Information:

To read the full decision, click here.

To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click the attachment below.

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