A tech advocacy group claims that Instagram is a ‘drug pipeline’ for kids
According to a report released Tuesday by technology advocacy group the Tech Transparency Project, despite Instagram’s stated prohibition on drug sales accounts advertising the sale of Xanax, ecstasy, opioids, and other drugs are still prevalent and easy to find on the platform, particularly for young users (TTP).
Those revelations came just days before an upcoming Senate subcommittee hearing, in which Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri is scheduled to testify about the platform’s impact on children and adolescents. As previously reported, it comes after months of investigation into an internal document leak by whistleblower Frances Haugen, which revealed that Instagram can have a negative impact on young people’s mental health and body image, as well as exacerbating dangerous behaviors such as eating disorders.
As part of the report, TTP conducted an experiment in which it created seven Instagram accounts impersonating teenage users between the ages of 13 and 17. The accounts were created to test the hypothesis. It was discovered that these accounts were easily navigable to pages that openly advertised the sale of illicit or prescription medications, according to the investigation.
Shortcomings of Instagram According to Findings
In the report, it is stated that “not only did Instagram’s algorithms enable the hypothetical teens to easily search for age-restricted and illegal drugs,” but “the platform’s algorithms also enabled the underage accounts to connect directly with drug dealers selling everything from opioids to party drugs.” According to the findings, “Instagram’s shortcomings when it comes to children are brought to light further.”
In response to the report, Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Instagram, told CNN Business that the social media platform prohibits the sale of illegal drugs and other illegal substances.
As a result of the advancements in detection technology, the prevalence of such content is approximately 0.05 percent of all content viewed, or approximately 5 views per 10,000 people, according to Otway. “In the last quarter alone, we removed 1.8 million pieces of content related to drug sales,” he added. In order to ensure the safety of our community’s youngest members, “we will continue to make improvements in this area as part of our ongoing efforts to do so.”
TTP did not make any attempts to purchase drugs on the platform, and it is therefore impossible to know whether or not they would have been delivered. Although the experiment was unsuccessful, it demonstrates the difficulties Instagram, Facebook, and the rest of the company’s platforms have in enforcing their own policies.
Potential Harm to Young Users
Additionally, the report may increase the pressure on Meta to address concerns about the potential harm that its platforms may cause to young users. As part of their investigation into the impact of social media on children and teenagers, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general launched an investigation into Instagram’s impact on children and teens last month. (A Meta spokesperson stated at the time that the allegations made by the attorneys general in announcing their investigation were untrue.)
When a hypothetical teen user typed the phrase “buyxanax” into Instagram’s search bar, the platform began auto-filling results for Xanax purchase, according to the TTP report on the matter. A “direct line to a Xanax dealer,” according to the report, was opened up immediately for the hypothetical user when they clicked on one of the suggested accounts. In accordance with the report, the entire process took only seconds, and the same thing happened when the user searched for “buyfentanyl” online. (Fentanyl is a highly potent opioid that has been linked to an increase in the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States in recent years.)
Teens were contacted by purported drug dealers via direct messages or Instagram voice calls, according to TTP, in some cases after they began following them on Instagram.
It is stated in the report that “despite the fact that these were minor accounts, Instagram took no action to prevent them from searching for drug-related content” and that “the platform’s automatic features sped up the process.”
Following the investigation, Instagram informed TTP that 36 of the 50 posts it submitted as part of the probe did not violate the platform’s community guidelines. One account was suspended for violating Instagram’s policies, and the platform eventually removed 12 of the posts and notified TTP that the account had been suspended. TTP claimed that the account had remained active even after Instagram stated that it would be suspended.
Also discovered by the investigation was that, while certain drug-related hashtags have been banned on Instagram, similar ones are still readily available on the platform. When the hashtag #mdma for the party drug also known as ecstasy was removed from Instagram, the first page of search results for the hashtag showed #mollymdma — another name for the same drug — as an option, CNN Business discovered on Wednesday, a day after a report about the problem was published.
On Wednesday, when CNN Business typed “buyxanax” into the Instagram search bar, a warning message appeared, noting that the term “may be associated with the sale of drugs” and providing a link to “get assistance.” Although the warning provides a link to the results, the user is not required to do so in order to see them. The results included accounts offering to sell the drug, some of which included WhatsApp contact information for purported dealers. (Meta also owns the messaging app WhatsApp.)
CNN Business has confirmed that the hashtags #mdma, #buyfentanyl, and #buyxanax have been blocked on Instagram by Meta, and that the company is currently reviewing additional hashtags for possible violations of its policies.
Instagram continues to allow drug dealers to conduct business on the platform, in violation of the platform’s Community Guidelines, which prohibit the “buying or selling of non-medical or pharmaceutical drugs,” according to TTP. “Instagram continues to allow drug dealers to conduct business on the platform,” TTP reported. Moreover, Instagram allows teens, who are among its most vulnerable user groups, to enter this market without any safeguards in place.