After a year of running her Instagram page, “Black People Trip,” Robin Divine had built up a following of over 3,000. She used her platform to post content and resources about psychedelics and the movement’s intersections with race, building a supportive community for Black people to learn and share. Like many others, she realized that there is a real need to discuss race in the psychedelic community, where racism, like other forms of oppression, is often overlooked.
The so-called “War on Drugs” and its attitudes stem from a deeply racialized history, making it impossible to discuss drugs without discussing race. There is therefore a need for safe spaces, online and in person, for Black people to speak about their substance use. So for months, Divine openly talked about drugs and race on Instagram.
Why is talking about these subjects something that results in page-deletion?
One byproduct of the drug war is that most people remain uneducated about drugs, jeopardizing their safety. Changing this requires honest discussion, including on social media. But whenever Divine spoke about race, she got pushback from some Instagram users, who said her posts were divisive.
What got Divine’s page deleted, she told Filter, were “a few posts back-to-back about decolonization, about unlearning whiteness, about how white people can hold space for Black people.” On October 23, 2021 a group of Instagram users swarmed her page, leaving hateful comments or saying that she was racist for expressing these views. They mass-reported her page to Instagram. The next day, the social media giant deleted it.
Why is talking about these subjects something that results in page-deletion? Both Divine and others writing on her behalf have put such questions to Instagram. She has yet to receive a response.
Screenshot courtesy of Robin Divine
By failing to justify their policies and enforcing them inconsistently, social media platforms like Instagram reinforce racism and misogyny, perpetuating drug-war propaganda that harms marginalized people.
Soma Phoenix experienced something similar. Over five years, she built up an Instagram following of 14,000 for her “@Psillygirls” page, which discussed psychedelics and plant medicine. On her birthday in May, Instagram deleted her page following a post depicting a mushroom-decorated birthday cake. After Phoenix sent reports to Instagram about the deletion, the @PsillyGirls page was restored for about a week. Then she posted about a friend’s recent death.
“I made a story post about how a coworker of mine who I’d worked with for about 10 years suddenly took her own life,” Phoenix told Filter. “I had just got my page back and hadn’t posted much since I was always paranoid about it being deleted again. I wanted to have a dialogue with my followers about depression, hidden signs of suicidal ideation and coping strategies for folks—so I create the post, with trigger warnings, and when I returned to the app, my page was deleted permanently.”
Part of the issue is that Instagram and other platforms do not have solid infrastructure to look through users’ reports. If enough people report a page, regardless of whether or not it is violating community standards, Instagram can delete an account. There are countless instances of other drug policy reform activists, psychedelic educators and writers having their pages deleted without explanation.
“People are really scared to post information that’s valuable.”
Instagram’s policy on drugs is a prohibitionist one. Its Community Guidelines state: “We … remove content that attempts to trade, co-ordinate the trade of, donate, gift, or ask for non-medical drugs, as well as content that either admits to personal use (unless in the recovery context) or coordinates or promotes the use of non-medical drugs.” Despite this, hundreds of accounts that claim to sell psychedelics exist.
Instagram has no specific policy on drug education, although its general drug guidelines leave little space for it. Many drug educators neither condone nor condemn drug use. But today’s drug educators are rejecting the longstanding “drugs are bad” paradigm. Drugs are just drugs, they point out, and their positive or negative impacts depend on a person’s relationship to the drug.
For people who use drugs, whether it be marijuana, mushrooms or methamphetamine, adopting harm reduction practices can prevent negative impacts and make for a pleasant experience. Many believe that psychedelics come without risks, which is not true. All substances have risks, but without honest education and discussion, many people won’t learn this. Drug education is life-saving information. Given rising, unprecedented numbers of overdose deaths, platforms like Instagram should be embracing educational posts about drugs, not banning them.
Phoenix has seen a noticeable shift in the platform. Recently, “People are really scared to post information that’s valuable,” she said. “It’s pared down to a retail site.” By deleting drug educators’ accounts, Instagram blocks access to harm reduction.
Page-deletions of Black women like Divine and Phoenix reward the racist white troll’s harassment and perpetuate drug-war racism.
The drug war privileges white people, meaning they face less criminalization and stigma despite using drugs at rates comparable to other races. Instagram’s page-deletions of Black women like Divine and Phoenix—blocking them from speaking about psychedelics and racism with no explanation—reward the racist white troll’s harassment and perpetuate drug-war racism.
In summer 2021, the psychedelics magazine DoubleBlind also had its account deleted, with no explanation. However, after some of DoubleBlind’s almost-40,000 followers submitted reports to Instagram on the company’s behalf, the page was reinstated. Why the difference? Instagram’s lack of transparency on account deletions and restorations raises troubling questions about what guides such inconsistencies.
Instagram’s deletion of Divine’s page—besides removing space for Black people interested in learning about psychedelics, race, and the drug war, space for folks to connect and educate themselves—also took away her livelihood, because she had used the platform to earn money. “It was my way to sustain myself,” she said. Losing it “was a huge hit financially.”
Instagram has a pattern of making it harder for creators to offer their products and services, continuously changing its algorithm so that they have to put more work into their content for other users to see the post.
“I just launched a product, like a resource guide for white trip sitters who hold space for Black clients,” Divine said. “It was starting to take off, and then to have no audience to sell to the next day was devastating.”
The deletion of a page to which she had dedicated much time and effort, striving to influence a community suffering a white supremacy problem, has affected Divine personally. Dozens of users had harassed her. They “just kind of swarmed me,” she said. “I had maybe 30, 40 comments … just like hate speech and just the most vile stuff, and then I was gone the next day.” Yet Instagram punished her for being harassed, apparently in direct contradiction of its anti-harassment community standards. It made no sense, and Divine now feels discouraged and unsafe.
Many other Black drug educators, like sex workers, have long faced similar issues across many online platforms, ranging from page-deletion to shadowbanning (a form of “soft deletion” that prevents followers from seeing posts), to freezes or seizures of payments. It can only be concluded that their audiences are viewed as disposable.
Now, psychedelic enthusiasts and organizations are also in the crosshairs. Using terms like “psychedelics” or “cannabis” in an Instagram caption makes it less likely to be seen. Posting about cannabis policy or harm reduction runs the risk of shadowbanning or straight-up account deletion. And reinforcing punitive drug policies results in harm and death.
But the processes behind this are hidden. What internal structures do platforms like Instagram have to deal with the volume of reports they receive? Who is reviewing these reports? Are they robots, or people? These practices should be made transparent.
“Instagram is not safe for Black folks.”
In November 2021, advocate Monica Cadena, an Afro-Indigenous psychedelic advocate and journalist, wrote an article for DoubleBlind about divesting from whiteness in the psychedelic space. It concerned how she encounters white saviorism in her work, and teaching white people how to be better allies. She shared her piece on her Instagram account. Initially, there were no issues.
But a few hours after DoubleBlind posted the article on Instagram, Cadena started receiving dozens of racist messages. Eventually, Instagram deleted the post featuring her writing from DoubleBlind’s page. She believes that Instagram removed the post because it was mass-reported.
The deleted post did not go against Instagram’s guidelines. Instagram’s action, Cadena believes, simply enabled the racist trolls to weaponize their fragility. “How can we divest [from] that in the work so we can continue to be stewards in the way that the original medicine keepers wanted it to be?” she asked Filter.
After this experience, Cadena said she realized how important it is for large organizations “to unpack how they continue to perpetuate a culture of violence, of white supremacy, because they are not talking about the issues that matter.”
What is clear to her is that “Instagram is not safe for Black folks.”
Screenshots courtesy of Monica Cadena
For marginalized people to speak about drug use puts them at risk for surveillance, criminalization, and discrimination. How can people who have been targeted protect and care for their communities?
Divine advised folks of color interested in psychedelics “to really build offline. Because these platforms are not built for us.”
Phoenix hasn’t given up on other online venues, however. “I knew that Instagram wasn’t a reliable place to have my community,” she said, “so I put resources into building my website and connecting with folks on other platforms.”
Beyond social media and psychedelics, Cadena said that folks of color must consider “how can we build our capacity to be resilient against the systems of oppression that are still going to be here?”
None of them have received meaningful answers from Instagram to the dozens of messages they or their allies have sent. But the lack of a response is a response. Whether by a deliberate policy of targeting, or through an opaque, automated process that achieves the same result, Instagram has sent a clear message that the communities built by these activists simply do not matter.