Does Facebook Care More About Fake Weed Than a Real Disease?

The social media titan is picking on “Animal Crossing” players while allowing COVID-19 misinformation to run rampant.  

In Nintendo’s new blockbuster release, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” each player begins the game on a deserted island teeming with weeds. That’s “weeds” as in the annoying invasive species gardeners must do battle with from time to time. Depending on the user’s preference, these pesky digitized plants can be ignored, plucked, or used to craft items for sale within the “Animal Crossing” marketplace.

Released exclusively for Nintendo Switch on March 20, “Animal Crossing” currently boasts over 11 million users. Naturally, many players have been flocking to social platforms like Facebook to trade in-game items and talk shop. Recently, some of their collective chatter about the game — including what to do with those island-related weeds — has caught the attention of Facebook.

No, there isn’t an elaborate smuggling ring involving the game’s much-discussed raccoon landlord, Tom Nook. Instead, it appears that Facebook’s ironclad policies concerning selling or buying non-medical drugs are now being applied to “Animal Crossing” players. Despite discussing weed of a remarkably different nature, Facebook still took issue.

According to Polygon, at least two different private Facebook groups devoted to the game have issued public guidance for members “to stop using the word ‘weed’ or ‘trade’ in posts, because Facebook is allegedly deleting those uploads.”

The inability of a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars to differentiate between video game plants and the real-life sale of cannabis on its own platform is troubling by itself. That Facebook’s rules concerning drug sales are even being applied to cannabis —which is domestically legal for recreational use in 11 states and medically available in 33 total — is another issue entirely.

While Facebook apparently has time to send the users of “Animal Crossing” scurrying for synonyms, they are reportedly doing notably worse in their fight to curb the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.

On March 25, Facebook made a public pledge to combat COVID-19 misinformation across its various apps. Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook, reassured readers in a public post that the company was “taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading.”

Unfortunately, as Judd Legum of Popular Information has reported, those “aggressive steps” have thus far been more akin to a stumble.

As recently as May 18, Legum was able to determine numerous, active posts on Facebook, making false, potentially harmful claims about wearing face masks. This stands in stark contrast to a statement issued by a Facebook spokesperson to CBS News on May 6.

“Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm,” the spokesperson said. Then why is Facebook still failing to flag and remove what Popular Information describes as “dozens of popular Facebook posts that state or suggest that wearing a mask will make you sick”?

Perhaps the more pertinent question is one of priority. How can it be that a system complex enough to root out “Animal Crossing” players talking about virtual gardening in its lust to purge cannabis content is unable to apply the same fervor to dangerous misinformation tied to an ongoing public health crisis?

This “Animal Crossing” incident is not the first time contradictory stances on cannabis in video games have made headlines.

Earlier this year, Vice pointed to a paradox in the game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” While players were encouraged to purchase a “Blunt Force” pack (complete with a P90 submachine gun covered in marijuana leaves), they are banned from using the word “weed” in chat. The hypocrisy of censoring discussion on cannabis while making real-world currency from selling weed-emblazoned digital gear is hard to ignore.

In Facebook’s case, the “Animal Crossing” incident suggests one of two possibilities. Is Mark Zuckerberg’s social empire simply ill-equipped to do the job being asked? Some are suggesting as much. Sadly, however, we must also entertain another option: that a hint of weed smoke truly troubles them more than the actively raging fires of bad actors looking to profit from a pandemic.

It sounds like a great time to find a deserted island after all.

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