This past April, Instagram took stern action against a particular class of drug-related hashtags. You probably wouldn't have noticed unless you were actively searching for them, or they regularly appeared in posts on your feed, but #oxycontin, #fentanyl, and #opiates were completely removed from the app or appeared with very limited results, seemingly overnight.
The decision came amidst mounting pressure from the FDA, senators, and advocates, for social media platforms like Instagram, which can harbour dark web players, to help curb the spread of the opioid epidemic. Many argued these platforms were not doing enough to police potential drug sales that initiated online and used corresponding hashtags — and phone numbers in bios — to draw in buyers.
"Internet firms simply aren’t taking practical steps to find and remove these illegal opioid listings," Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said in a speech at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in April. "There’s ample evidence of narcotics being advertised and sold online. I know that internet firms are reluctant to cross a threshold; where they could find themselves taking on a broader policing role. But these are insidious threats being propagated on these web platforms."
Last week, CNN reported that Instagram had taken an even stronger stance: Search for #fentanyl or #opiates now and you will no longer see the message that previously appeared, "Recent posts from [the hashtag] are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines." Instead, there is just a brief three-word signal that these are now banned: "No hashtags found." Instagram confirmed the bans, telling Refinery29, “Keeping the Instagram community safe is our responsibility and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can create a safe and open environment for everyone. We have taken action against this content – including removing the @fentanyl_connect account and blocking the #fentanyl hashtag.”
While Instagram certainly has cause for removing these hashtags — they can, indeed, be linked to accounts trying to sell the drugs, which is expressly forbidden in the app's Community Guidelines — experts are at odds on how large of a role social media apps actually play, how much action they should be required to take, and ways to effectively prohibit drug sales. The bans on drug-related hashtags speak to the larger challenges of trying to proactively target illicit activities on social media while allowing for the free speech of those who use such hashtags without illegal intent.
In contrast to Silk Road, a dark web marketplace for drug sales that appeared in 2011 and was shut down by the FBI in 2013, social media apps are home to what the DEA calls street level dealers. "There are obviously people selling drugs or advertising that they can sell drugs on social media platforms, and using hashtags to do it," Wade C. Sparks, a special agent in the Office of National Media Affairs at the DEA told Refinery29 over email. "These situations usually involve a street level dealer selling directly to a drug user, as opposed to people moving large quantities of drugs."
Although Sparks says technology does play a role in the DEA's investigations, hashtags are not usually involved. The DEA is focused on "the highest echelon of traffickers," those using more secure, encrypted servers, as opposed to street level buyers. "In other words, I would be surprised to see a major Mexican drug cartel trying to sell 100 kilos of cocaine using hashtags on a public social media platform," Sparks says.
But what about those street level dealers? Are they drawing in new customers via Instagram and expanding existing drug problems to a larger portion of the population through social media? The answer, as with most of the complicated issues facing tech companies these days, is not as black and white as it may seem.
“In terms of media effects, if I’m on Instagram and I see somebody promoting opioids or the otherwise illegal consumption of drugs, the research shows that the effects of that are likely very weak," Michael A. Stefanone, an expert in social media and an associate professor of communications at the University of Buffalo, says."The people that would respond to a drug dealer’s phone number [on Instagram] would seek out those drugs in other ways as well."
"In other words, I would be surprised to see a major Mexican drug cartel trying to sell 100 kilos of cocaine using hashtags on a public social media platform."
Wade C. Sparks, Special Agent, Office of National Media Affairs, DEA
However, there is evidence that the content young people are exposed to online can impact their beliefs. The Rand Corporation, a non-profit research organisation, looked at the effects of youth exposure to another substance — alcohol — online. They found that the majority of the 11-to-14-year-old study cohort viewed alcohol and drinking more positively after seeing an average of three alcohol ads per day. It's plausible, then, that increased exposure to posts related to banned substances might have a similarly normalising effect, if not a positive one.
The disparate beliefs about the impact that seeing illegal substances on social media can have on viewers speaks to the lack of the research on the topic. As an American Academy of Pediatrics article on “Digital Media and the Risks for Adolescent Substance Abuse and Problematic Gambling” says, social media research is still in its early days, making it hard to know how the effects of online exposure compare to offline exposure.
There is something to be said for the fact that even if drug dealers are not necessarily attracting new users, they can can easily connect with existing drug users online, making the platforms where these exchanges take place unwilling facilitators. The challenge facing Instagram, Facebook, and other social media apps and sites is that "there is currently no system in place to identify these types of criminal acts," Patricia A. Cavazos, PhD, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University's School of Medicine.
Hashtag bans are one attempt to target them, but that's not always effective. For starters, there’s often a way around them. As CNN noted, the process of eliminating hashtags can be like playing an extremely frustrating "game of whack-a-mole": Those who are trying to sell drugs through social media will find ways around a ban, using related hashtags to reach users (search for #oxycontin right now on Instagram and you'll find similar alternatives, including the obvious — #oxycontins, and less obvious — #oxycontin40mg). Although dealing with drug sales should be an easier task than, say, figuring out how to handle a controversial figure like Alex Jones, constantly evolving approaches to gaming the system complicate these efforts.
Secondly, the same hashtags social media apps have banned are often used by those working in drug prevention and drug treatment, as well as by the DEA, Sparks says. In other words, not everyone who posts #fentanyl is coordinating a drug sale, meaning that many posts that don't violate Community Guidelines can get caught in the crosshairs of a hashtag ban. Take, for example, posts that report on news of drug-related arrests. While Instagram aims to preserve hashtags, the consistent abuse of specific ones can necessitate their removal.
For drug-related hashtags, one chapter has reached a seemingly inevitable conclusion. At the start of last week, searches for #cocaine on Instagram still pulled up hundreds of thousands of results. When Refinery29 reached out to Instagram to ask why results for #fentanyl were hidden, but #cocaine were not, Instagram took action and blocked posts with the hashtag.
“Instagram prohibits the promotion and sale of illegal drugs,” A spokesperson said. “Our team reviews reports and will remove content if it violates our policies.”
But, if past games of whack-a-mole are any indication, you can expect more where those hashtags came from as the fight continues.
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