Drug dealers are turning to Instagram to boost sales, and algorithms may even be helping their cause.
As of yet, the platform has not adequately addressed the issue, in the wake of rising drug addiction, particularly in the United States.
Instagram is one of the most used applications in the world.
Many in the tech industry determine the popularity of an application based on the metric of monthly active users, and Instagram certainly is a force to be reckoned with, boasting 1 billion monthly active users, a significant increase from 800 million monthly active users in the third quarter of 2017.
It has proven to be an incredible investment for Facebook, who purchased the company for $1 billion in 2012.
In fact, a recent study by Bloomberg Intelligence suggested that Instagram now might be worth as much as 100 times that currently.
The study also concluded that Instagram could be responsible for as much as 16 percent of Facebook’s revenue, and its solidified status among younger users (compared to Facebook) makes it so that advertisers are more interested in the platform than ever.
One of the main reasons the platform has been able to succeed has been the fact that many celebrities have gravitated towards the platform, as it allows them to monetize their followings much more than Twitter or Facebook.
For example, Kylie Jenner reportedly earns $1 million per sponsored post, and other globally-known celebrities fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars per post, as well.
The Drug Issue
Despite the fact that many flood to Instagram for various reasons, whether it is to market their business, follow certain influencers, or find new artists of all kinds—there have been drug dealers openly marketing their services on the platform as well.
Dr. Desmond Patton from Columbia University, who studies social media, points out that the drug dealers involved often find ways to make the message clear, but coded.
In a recent interview with Pix11, he stated that these dealers may “communicate through emoji or text or picture that they’re seeking drugs,” which creates issues for law enforcement, as well.
Pix11 reports that they actually were able to contact and discuss the issue with a dealer who dealt drugs through the platform.
Apparently, the dealer felt that it was worth the risk, pointing out that the worst that could happen was that his profile would be shut down, and that could take anywhere “from an hour to a week.”
Interestingly enough, the dealer also dealt drugs on the dark web, as well, in addition to Instagram.
He said the dark web is usually the easiest, most discreet platform to work on. The dealer even claimed to have clients that were involved in law enforcement, as well.
It’s no secret that the U.S. in particular is dealing with an immense opioid epidemic that claimed over 49,000 lives last year, and the Food and Drug Administration believes that social media posts have contributed to those deaths.
This would coincide with Patton’s findings, as he claims that there has been a steady increase over the past six or seven years regarding discussions surrounding drugs, searching for drugs and expressing the need for drugs.
This issue could affect those who regularly use drugs or are addicted them, given the fact that Instagram—like most large tech companies—uses algorithms to customize the platform based on what the user searches, likes and interacts with.
For example, if a user follows dealer accounts or searches drug-related hashtags, they could be exposed to posts that might trigger their addiction.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has been outspoken about the fact that the right steps aren’t being taken to “remove opioid listings” and the discourse has even become political.
Specifically, Senator Joe Manchin III from West Virginia has criticized social media companies for being “reckless.”
The opioid epidemic has been particularly relevant to West Virginia, as the town of Williamson has grabbed national headlines as representative for the overall drug crisis in the U.S.
As addiction worsened nationally, this small town was oversupplied exorbitantly—to the tune of over 6,000 pills per person—over the past decade.
It should be noted that there are instances where Instagram has helped law enforcement with drug busts.
One of the most notable recent examples is when Instagram helped law enforcement make a $30 million cocaine bust thanks to the platform. It actually ended up being Australia’s largest cocaine bust on a boat or plane.
Facebook has attempted to address the issue. Carolyn Everson, the vice president for global marketing solutions, claimed that Instagram was paying more attention to illegal drug sales.
It’s important to remember that Facebook has recently come under fire more than ever in the company’s history, given recent revelations that data from the platform was allegedly used to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The scandal even led to the company losing billions in market capitalization, which it eventually recovered.
Everson pointed out that the artificial intelligence technology lacks the ability to make distinctions between different drug-related posts.
But, Everson did acknowledge that some items do get posted that go against the platform’s policy, something Facebook is working to challenge.
Facebook also released a blog post pointing out how the company deals with the drug issue, entitled: “How We Enforce Against Illicit Drug Sales.”
The company pointed out that it blocks and filters terms, made it easier for users to flag content that could involve drug sales, investigate profiles associated with previously removed accounts, work with outside experts, and more.
Time will tell whether Instagram can ultimately curb its drug dealer issue, as it is certainly more relevant than ever.
The Centers for Disease Control just released a new report showing that overdose deaths have peaked to over 70,000 in 2017, which has contributed to the decrease in life expectancy from 2016 to 2017.
Overdose rates have consistently risen throughout the years in general. The overdose death rate was six per 100,000 in 1999, and in 2017, it was 22 per 100,000.
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