DM for Details: Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media
In this report, Volteface aims to bridge the gap in understanding of how social media is being used as a marketplace for illicit drugs and the impact this is having on young people – social media’s primary user group.
This report examines how prevalent this phenomenon is, which platforms are most likely to host this activity, what drugs are being advertised, how the platforms are being used, and what impact this is having on young people’s wellbeing, as well as the challenges facing social media regulators and law enforcement.
This research used a mixed methodology of both qualitative and quantitative research. To ascertain the prevalence of this phenomenon, Volteface commissioned Survation in January 2019 to conduct a nationally representative poll of 2,006 16-to-24 year olds.
An unrepresentative ethnographic trawl was conducted on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – the platforms on which the poll suggested that drug distribution activity is most prevalent. This involved setting up accounts that observed and recorded evidence of drugs being advertised and sold through these platforms. The researchers did not communicate with any social media users during the trawl and all published screenshots have been anonymised.
Volteface also invited relevant stakeholders to take part in interviews, an online survey and focus groups to evaluate the impact of drug selling and buying through social media platforms. A total of 24 interviews were conducted, five online survey responses were received and 30 young people aged 13 to 17 participated in four focus groups.
One in four young people (24%) reported that they see illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media – a significant figure considering how recent a phenomenon this is.
Of those who reported seeing illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media:
- 56% saw drugs being advertised on Snapchat, 55% on Instagram and 47% on Facebook.
- 63% saw Cannabis being advertised – making it the most commonly seen drug advertised for sale. Cocaine was the second drug most commonly seen advertised (26%), followed by MDMA/Ecstasy (24%), Xanax (20%), Nitrous Oxide (17%) and Codeine/Lean (16%).
- 72% said that they see illegal drugs advertised for sale on social media sites or apps once a month or more.
- 36% were not concerned by seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media. Worryingly, this percentage increased the younger the respondent. 33% aged 18+ were not concerned, but this jumped to 48% for under-18s.
The data indicated that there is an association between frequency of social media use and the likelihood of seeing drugs advertised for sale. The baseline of seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media is 24%. This increases to 29% of respondents who use social media every hour, compared to 14% of respondents who use social media once a day.
How social media platforms are used
The ethnographic trawl of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram revealed how drugs are advertised and bought through social media platforms. Typically, dealers would advertise their drugs by posting, videos, photos and statuses onto their social media feeds or ‘stories’ showing what drugs they have available, the price and quantity they are selling them for, and notifying users when they are open for business.
It was observed that buyers would then contact the dealers by either commenting below their posts or contacting them in private via the platform’s direct messaging function or encrypted messaging sites, such as WhatsApp or Wickr. Drugs could be exchanged in person, either with the buyer going to meet the dealer or vice versa, or by postal delivery. The trawl revealed that online payment services such as PayPal were used if the drugs were delivered by post.
Social media’s in-built design features has helped dealers to expand and professionalise their businesses. The ‘search bar’ function can help dealers identify customers, hashtags can assist in their posts getting a wider reach, dealers can advertise their products and availability through pictures and videos and the ‘suggested friends’ function allows dealers to be suggested to new potential buyers.
Seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media may normalise drug use, interviews with young people and professionals revealed. The evidence base corroborates this, for example, the frequency of seeing gambling advertisements plays a strong role in the normalisation of gambling in sports. Additionally, the evidence suggests that advertising is more persuasive and effective when conducted in familiar settings, such as on people’s social media feeds, and studies have shown that paid social media advertising has an impact on consumer buying behaviour.
It is concerning that many young people in the UK are bombarded by these advertisements but are unlikely to be in receipt of good quality drugs education.
These platforms provide opportunities for dealers to build trust with potential customers, with young people highlighting that they are more likely to see an account advertising drugs as a ‘friend’, rather than as a ‘dealer’. This can leave young people vulnerable to exploitation, as well as reduce any trepidations they may have around buying drugs.
The ethnographic trawl revealed that dealers can advertise their associated lifestyles to their social media networks, for example, by posting pictures of luxury items and cash – a technique that can be used to recruit and control victims. There are reports that social media is changing how the county lines model operates as there is no longer the need to transport children from cities to rural areas to sell drugs, as children who live in those rural areas can be groomed using social media.
Social media has made it easier for young people to buy drugs. Dealers can be found in an accessible way through platforms and without young people needing to have an existing drug user network. Even if a person already had access to a network, it was found that social media provides widened access to a range of dealers and drugs. Once a network is found, social media’s in-built design features can then help expand this network. For example, the ‘suggested friend’ function can recommend other dealers. Greater accessibility can lead to an increase in: drug use, the likelihood of people starting to use drugs and access to a wider variety of drugs.
It was suggested during interviews that buying drugs through social media could be seen as some form of harm reduction. The public facing nature of social media incentivises dealers to build-up their online reputation as users are able to connect more easily, promote dealer accounts and leave public comments if they are unhappy with the service. This can make dealers more accountable to their customer base, though it would be relatively easy for dealers to provide fake reviews of their products or delete negative reviews.
Young people also highlighted that they could ‘vet’ dealers before purchasing drugs from them by scrolling through their social media profile. There is no way of knowing if the information presented on social media is real or accurate and there is a risk of young people meeting up with strangers who they feel they have ‘vetted’.
The public-facing nature of social media also leaves buyers more exposed and vulnerable as dealers are able to access their profiles which may contain personal or identifiable information.
Social media can remove some harms by reducing face-to-face interactions with drug dealers, particularly if the drugs are sent via post. However, there is no guarantee that, where physical contact between buyers and dealers does occur, it is less safe than it would have been without the use of social media, particularly if they are meeting with strangers rather than people recommended through their peer networks.
Interviews revealed that social media platforms have made drug dealing easier to get into and sustain as social media provides a familiar and easy-to-use interface that gives dealers the option to operate anonymously, without having to engage in face-to-face interactions. The interconnectedness of social media is beneficial for sellers as they can increase their exposure and expand their client base. However, this visibility can lead to dealers, particularly those who are young, forgetting the legal risks attached to supplying drugs.
Concerns were raised, particularly by professionals who have worked with vulnerable young people, that as customer bases quickly expand, selling drugs through social media can escalate into large scale dealing. It was also highlighted that social media can often make it harder to stop once dealers have built up an online reputation and become accustomed to a particular lifestyle. Moreover, social media features leave exploited young people vulnerable to being tracked and monitored by criminal gangs.
Lastly, several interviewees stated that selling drugs through social media can reduce certain risks from traditional methods of selling, contributing to the argument that this constitutes a form of harm reduction. Most notably, where interactions take place virtually and away from the streets which may reduce risk of violence. However, if this encourages more people to become involved in the drug trade, this would increase harm overall.
Regulation and Enforcement
Volteface’s research reveals that, among the police, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the role that social media plays in drug dealing. Additionally, the use of ever evolving coded language and emojis can make it challenging for police and social media platforms to identify accounts that are suspected of supplying drugs. Volteface also identified that there is a reluctance from young people to report the content in question.
Encryption and VPN technology can make it difficult to trace dealers once suspicions have been raised. Moreover, it was revealed that there is currently a lack of information sharing between police and social media platforms which makes it harder for them both to enforce this activity. Additionally, even if social media platforms were to shut down one account, it cannot be claimed that one dealer has been taken out, as the dealer can simply set up a new account.
The police and social media companies have an essential role to play in disrupting and regulating illicit drug supply on social media platforms, but Volteface’ research has shown that they will face greater obstacles than those posed by traditional drug dealing.
Volteface commends the Government’s proposals to address this issue through the introduction of its Online Harms White Paper, which this research indicates is affecting a significant number of young people.
However, Volteface is concerned that the white paper’s proposals may fail to adequately address illicit drug supply on social media. Notably, social media platforms would only have to report and respond to illegal activity within their own platform, which may lead to under-reporting. Additionally, it remains unclear whether companies would have an obligation to report illegal activity to the police. Volteface identifies challenges that the Government may face when implementing the white paper’s proposals, for example defining private communications, what constitutes selling illegal drugs and how users could be encouraged to report this activity.
Social media is providing drug dealers with easy-to-use and familiar platforms that they can utilise to find and build trust with customers, advertise their business, and disguise their activities. Concerningly, Volteface’s research has shown that dealers have been quick to take up this opportunity, with one in four young people now seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media.
The emergence of drug markets on social media is not simply a transfer of harmful activity from the offline world onto the online world. It is a new problem which presents new threats. Regulators and enforcers will not be able to tackle this new, illicit online drug market and minimise the harms associated with it unless innovative approaches are put in place.