Sales of drugs via social networks are increasing (VIDEO)

Although social media platforms like Snapchat have safeguards in place, drug dealers often change tactics quickly, making them difficult to detect.

For years, online drug sales have been largely associated with the dark web and marketplaces like Silk Road. But as law enforcement clamped down on access to these hard-to-find markets, federal agencies like the DEA and other experts say it spawned a new reality for the drug trade: Anyone with a smartphone and access to social networks can easily buy dangerous drugs.

Major platforms like Meta and Snapchat have policies in place to crack down on sales of non-medical drugs, especially opioids which may contain lethal amounts of fentanyl or other dangerous substances. These companies claim they can sweep up a lot of these offenders with robust proactive detection tools, as well as human user reports.

Of the nearly 13 million pieces of content and accounts reported or detected by Snapchat in the second half of 2021, more than 800,000 of them were drug-related.

In the first quarter of this year, Meta said it took some kind of action – be it suspension, account removal or post removal – against 3.3 million drug content on Facebook and 1.8 million on Instagram.

But the number of offensive messages they can detect at any given time varies wildly. For example, in the last three months of 2019, Facebook removed 8.8 million drug-related content, but by spring 2020 that number had dropped to 1.7 million.

“Drug sellers will change their tactics depending on content moderation, but if the worst-case scenario for you as an online drug seller is that your post gets deleted, you only put one back – even this isn’t really a deterrent,” said Tim Mackey, associate assistant professor in the global health program at the University of California, San Diego.

Mackey, who helped create a startup that uses artificial intelligence to find and track drug sales online, noted that this market is difficult to track because it’s mercurial. Sometimes the initial contact between a buyer and a reseller may take place on a platform like Instagram and then move to an encrypted, hard-to-detect chat service like Telegram. Other users can find these drugs through simple internet searches.

“In order to really understand this market, you need to track this market all the time,” Mackey said. “So the code words, the keywords, all of those things change and are dynamic. It used to be, you know, you could see a post on Twitter that was often drugged and had a picture of it, and now that’s it the path to very specific communities creating their own lists of emojis with their own menus of drugs that represent different things.There is no universal standard for these code words.

Overall, Mackey said this has led to further consumerization of the market, and as part of the broader drug ecosystem, it’s getting worse and not better.

“Before, these drug sellers were single-platform; now they’re cross-platform marketers,” Mackey said. “Not only are they selling drugs or offering to sell drugs, but there’s like reviews from drug dealers, or there’s evidence that they’ve shipped something, for example. And in our understanding of this market, looking at it over the last decade, it actually looks like it’s getting more and more competitive to be an online drug dealer.”

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