You don’t have to search too hard to find Xanax and Fentanyl dealers posting their phone numbers all over Instagram, but at least it’s starting to push people toward addiction recovery resources.
Backlash led Instagram to perform a cursory blocking of exact drug name hashtag searches in April, which did little to solve the problem, as sellers just moved to unblocked hashtags like “#XanaxLife” and “Oxycontins.” Facebook and Instagram could share some of the blame for 2017’s massive spike in synthetic opioid deaths that skyrocketed from 10,000 to 30,000, according to The Center for Disease Control.
So last month, Facebook began redirecting users searching to buy drugs toward a “Can we help?” box explaining that “If you or someone you know struggles with opioid misuse, we would like to help you find ways to get free and confidential treatment referrals, as well as information about substance use, prevention and recovery.” The box displayed a “Get support” button that opens The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website. But I criticized the company for allowing accounts like “Fentanyl Kingpin Kilo” to keep operating, even after it removed posts of some Pages and profiles for violating its drug rules.
But the problem is that some people searching for drugs on Instagram are actually seeking help. “Blocking hashtags has its drawbacks. In some cases, we are removing the communities of support that help people struggling with opioid or substance misuse,” Instagram tells me.
Now Instagram will start pointing users searching for words like “opioids” or “uppers” toward treatment options too. The most abused and previously blocked hashtags will remain unsearchable, but new ones like phrases and synonyms of drug names will still be available with this dismissible interstitial. An Instagram spokesperson tells me “As part of Instagram’s commitment to be the kindest, safest social network, we’re launching a new pop-up within the app that offers to connect people with information about free and confidential treatment options, as well as information about substance use, prevention and recovery.”
The interstitial reads “Can we help? If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid or substance misuse, find ways to get free and confidential treatment referrals, as well as information about substance prevention, and recovery.”
However, users can opt to “see posts anyway,” which makes the interstitial little more than a speed bump for those adamant about finding drugs. At least Instagram tells me it’s testing type-ahead blocking so users won’t be able to easily discover drug synonyms and phrases that would surface dealers.
These pop-ups will appear when users search for opioids, prescription drugs or illegal drug hashtags, and the company will add more hashtags to the list over time. They’ll show up today in the U.S. before rolling out globally in the coming weeks. Info will also be available to assist concerned friends and family of victims. “We worked in close partnership with Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the NCADD, and the Partnership for Drug Free Kids to offer these resources,” Instagram explained.
Instagram will have to be vigilant or dealers may win this cat-and-mouse game by constantly switching to new hashtags using drug name variants, misspellings and synonyms, as well as by restarting terminated accounts. While it’s admirable that it’s trying to avoid shutting victims out of support communities, the relatively hands-off approach might not deter addicts. Instagram should also be flagging users posting drug names and phone numbers as potential dealers. By whitelisting accounts purposefully sharing treatment and support, it could more aggressively chase the pill peddlers.
“Keeping Instagram a safe and open place for people to share their daily lives is hugely important to us. One of the most inspiring things about Instagram is that people can come together to support one another. People from all over the world use hashtags, comments and more to offer support and find communities who understand the issues they may be struggling with,” says Instagram’s Head of Public Policy Karina Newton. “The opioid epidemic is an issue that affects millions of people, and we want to use our platform to offer resources to those who need it — in the places where they are seeking help. This is an important step for us in our ongoing commitment to make Instagram the kindest, safest social network.”
Given Instagram has more than 1 billion users, is starting to make some serious ad revenue and is owned by deep-pocketed Facebook, there’s little excuse for it not applying more content moderation resources to solve this problem already. It’s now late, and some damage has been done, so Instagram can’t play it cautiously anymore. Otherwise the opioid crisis could become the company’s latest scandal.