Preventing the Sale of Drugs by Banning Opioid-Related Hashtags
For users of popular social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, seeing and using hashtags is commonplace. For the uninitiated, hashtags were designed to be common search terms preceded by a pound sign (#), now also known as a hashtag symbol. Hashtags are used to help social media users tag and find content they’re interested in more easily. For instance, beauty gurus often tag their makeup tutorials “#makeup.” Cat enthusiasts may search the “#catsdaily” tag for adorable kitten pics. Recently, however, the prevalence of hashtags has been coopted by online drug dealers selling everything from #opioids like #OxyContin to the deadly #fentanyl.
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Painkillers for Sale on Social Media
Back in 2015, opioid-related deaths surpassed the total number of AIDS deaths in 1995 (the worst year for deaths during AIDS epidemic). A year before, independent analytics groups had started to alert Facebook and Twitter about the ease of finding and purchasing illicit drugs online. At the time, benzodiazepines were among the most commonly advertised and purchased drugs online. #XanaxForSale was a popular search term on social media sites.
Finally, in 2018, a tweet to Facebook executives about the issue drew public concern and the attention of company. Under the direction of parent company, Facebook, Instagram stopped posts with opioid-related hashtags from appearing in search results. Instead, results returned, “No hashtags found.”
There are obviously people selling drugs or advertising that they can sell drugs on social media platforms, and using hashtags to do it. These situations usually involve a street level dealer selling directly to a drug user, as opposed to people moving large quantities of drugs.
Posts that link back to dealer profiles usually include pictures of pills for sale or “psychedelic” imagery. Typically, these posts are accompanied by contact information, including phone numbers, email addresses, and usernames for (encrypted) messaging apps like KiK or Wickr. Most transactions use the international mail system to deliver drugs to every corner of the US.
In a congressional hearing on January 25, special committee investigator, Senator Rob Portman, said the investigation discovered that “online sellers were quick to respond, unafraid of getting caught, and ready to make a deal. They offered discounts for bulk purchases and even tried to up-sell us to carfentanil – a powerful synthetic opioid that is so strong it’s used as an elephant tranquilizer. Ordering these drugs was as easy as buying any other product online.”
Substance Abuse and Social Media Statistics
On a single Monday in April 2018, a search for #OxyContin on Instagram returned more than 30,000 posts.
A recent investigation by congress linked 500+ online drug deals involving over 300 dealers across 43 states.
$94 million has been devoted to finding and processing drugs through international mail facilities in the US.
Cracking Down on Drug-Related Posts and Hashtags
To avoid litigation, social media companies have relied on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects them from liability for user-generated content. Likewise, Instagram’s Community Guidelines direct users to “always follow the law” when posting. Yet, historically, posts with nudity have received much heavier bans and account removals.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims 15,000 employees review content for Facebook and Instagram, and that 5,000 more reviewers will be hired by 2019. With more than 2 billion users on Facebook alone, many regulators doubt the platforms’ ability to proactively screen so much content once it’s posted.
In response to pressure by Congress, Instagram will display a pop-up offering confidential support when searching for certain opioids beginning September 12 in the US. A global rollout of the pop-up will follow soon after. Instagram reportedly developed the pop-up in cooperation with the Partnership for Drug Free Kids, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and NCADD. Still, users can choose to “see posts anyway;” some hashtags may continue to be banned at Instagram’s discretion.