Behind the Screens: Drugs and Social Media

3 years on from Volteface's landmark 'DM for Details' investigation, Megan Townsend writes on drugs, young people and social media in 2022.

by Megan Townsend

3 years on from DM for Details, this is where we’re at…

In days gone by, the sale of drugs online was dominated by dark web monoliths such as the Silk Road and Alphabay. However, the proliferation of social media into everyday life has shifted the way we access illicit substances. In 2022, anyone with a smartphone and social media access can purchase drugs almost instantaneously. 

How prevalent is the issue of drugs on social media? 

In 2019, Volteface produced a groundbreaking report exploring the use of social media as a marketplace for illicit substances and the impacts this had on young people. At the time, it was found that one in four young people (24%) encountered drugs for sale on various social media platforms, and that 36% were not concerned by what they had seen. Interestingly, increased social media usage was linked to a higher likelihood of seeing drugs for sale, and younger age groups were even less concerned about this issue. 

Since this report, the scope of drug sales on social media has continued to increase. From July to December 2021, Snapchat received 805,057 reports of drug-related content and accounts, just over half of which were enforced against. In the first quarter of 2022, Facebook and Instagram took action against 3.3m and 1.8 pieces of drug content respectively. 

Updated research also shows that young people are increasingly encountering this issue. In 2021, a survey by the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation revealed that 35% of young people had seen drugs for sale online. When broken down by age, this figure was as high as 58% for 18 year olds, and children as young as 13 reported seeing drugs on social media. Clearly this issue has continued to expand since the DM for Details report

As social media moves with the times, so too does the sale of drugs on these platforms. Researchers found that within their sample of 33 individuals who used social media to either buy or sell drugs, only 3 respondents reported using Facebook to do so. Interestingly, participants stressed that Facebook was far less secure than other platforms and this was a reason for its declining usage.  

Instagram and Snapchat appear to have kept their popularity as platforms for the sale of drugs, with Snapchat emphasised as the perfect ‘middle ground’ between convenience and security. Importantly, Instagram and Snapchat are commonly used amongst the Gen Z population and this is likely to be the reason why dealers are concentrating their sales on these platforms. 

As a new player to the table, the platform Discord has recently been identified as an-up-and coming social media drug market. This platform allows users to interact with each other on private servers, exchanging text, calls, and media files. Individuals who use the platform have highlighted that it is saturated with both product options and buyers, making it an attractive ‘failsafe’ for online sellers. 

As well as this, TikTok has also been found to contain a small, but elusive, online drug market. A simple search carried out by The i revealed 15 UK-based accounts claiming to sell a range of substances, such as LSD, cannabis, and Xanax. 

The shifting nature of drug sales from one platform to another has made it harder for older generations to keep up with the latest advancements in the online drug market. Therefore, this has kept the phenomenon concentrated mainly amongst young people. 

The DM for Details report highlighted that, despite this phenomenon being relatively new, there was a pressing need for increased academic research in this area. Three years on from that report and the literature surrounding social media and drugs is still incredibly lacking. Therefore, there is still serious demand for an updated large-scale investigation into this area. 

What is pushing young people to buy drugs online? 

There is no doubt that young people today access information in a fundamentally different way to young people ten or twenty years ago. Research by Ofcom shows that in 2021, 99% of children aged 3-17 in the UK went online, and that 62% had their own account on at least one social media site,mainly using YouTube and TikTok to consume content. 

Aside from the usual prank videos, game walkthroughs, and challenges, the report also revealed a large amount of young people access these platforms to consume content that will help them out with school work, or teach them new skills. 

Young people clearly want to learn, and social media offers them a space to do this. 

However, if young people are increasingly turning to social media for education, this begs the question: how much  is the education system doing to provide children with the knowledge they need on drugs and drug safety? 

The delivery of drug education has been labelled as “historically poor” and “inconsistent”, too focused on using scare tactics at the expense of equipping young people with the skills they need to make sensible decisions. The current approach disguises shame as prevention, which does nothing for the education of young people. 

Despite the government introducing a new drug education framework as part of the statutory relationships, sex, and health education curriculum (RSE) in 2020, there is still a clear lack of uptake in schools, most of which average around an hour a year for drugs and alcohol education. There is no set provider for RSE, and the guidance given to teachers is vague and uninformative. Therefore, when students receive their annual hour of drug education, they unsurprisingly report that it is uninteresting and irrelevant. 

The current state of drug education in the UK offers nothing to young people who clearly want to learn about the issue of drugs. Moreover, the existing curriculum has failed to keep up with changing ways young people access information, leaving the current state of drug education outdated and not fit for purpose. It is simply not good enough. 

Consequently, more and more young people are forced to turn to social media for information on the topic. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t always have the right answers. Those turning to social media for drug education are met with little in the way of harm reduction, instead presented with an entire drug marketplace. And so, the fall down the rabbit hole begins. 

How is the issue of drugs on social media being addressed? 

In 2019, the Government published the Online Harms White Paper, which outlined a plan of action to address harmful behaviour online. This has since transformed into the Online Safety Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. 

The legislation aims to hold social media platforms and search engines accountable for the content their users post and are exposed to. All platforms will need to make an effort to tackle illegal content such as terrorist material and child sexual exploitation/abuse. Platforms that are most likely to be accessed by children will have an extra duty of care to protect young people from content that is harmful but not necessarily illegal, such as self-harm. 

With Ofcom positioned as the regulator for the Online Safety Regime, businesses who do not comply with the legislation will be fined £18m or 10% of their global annual turnover (whichever is higher) and may face further disruption, such as having their activity blocked. Senior managers who fail to take action could also face criminal sanctions. 

The White Paper provided a decent starting point for thinking about the regulation of online harm. However, a key concern about the Bill in its formative stages was the vagueness with which it referred to these harms and the policies put in place to address them. 

Despite a number of updates to the Bill since the White Paper, the unclear nature of ‘harm’ remains unresolved. The government’s updated definition of harm sees it as adverse physical or psychological harm”, but does not expand beyond this, rendering the definition incredibly unhelpful for businesses trying to moderate their content.  

The vagueness of the Bill also stretches to the issue of drugs on social media. Despite it having been identified as an issue of increasing relevance, the draft legislation does not mention it once, conveniently forgetting its inclusion within the scope of harm outlined in the White Paper. It is only hoped that the issue makes an appearance within the actual legislation. 

There are also a multitude of non-criminal justice responses to the issue of drugs on social media. Platforms have their own in-house regulations which often result in the banning of accounts associated with harmful content, such as the sale of drugs. Despite social media platforms expressing that they “actively” search for and remove dealer’s accounts, the reality is a lot less exciting. The DM for Details report showed on multiple occasions that following a ban, dealers were able to swiftly set up new accounts, with business still, effectively, booming. Therefore, banning accounts appears a pretty flimsy approach to such a widespread issue.

Aside from cutting supply, harm reduction has also tried its hand at addressing drugs on social media. For example, at the end of 2021, Snapchat partnered with both Frank and With You to launch the drugs education platform Heads Up, which a user could access when they searched for drug-related phrases. Of course this was an excellent step forwards in addressing the failure of drug education and raising the profile of harm reduction organisations. However, the approach taken appeared more reactive than proactive. 

Moreover, organisations and initiatives are nowhere near as visible as they should be, through no fault of their own. In an attempt to keep users safe, many platforms censor harmful and sensitive content through their algorithms. This often results in content being removed or accounts getting shadowbanned. Of course it is understandable that this attempt to tackle issues, such as the sale of drugs, means well. If the content isn’t visible, users can’t access drug markets through social media platforms, right? 

Well, not entirely. Censorship on social media also affects harm reduction organisations who are equally trying to address the harms of drug use. Although some organisations and content creators have taken to using pseudonyms to prevent their content from being picked up by social media algorithms, this is a short-term fix and makes information about substances even more inaccessible. 

As well as this, the DM for Details report found that dealers equally knew how to fly under the radar of social media content guidelines, allowing them to continue selling to their customers. Therefore, censorship of drug content on social media is arguably having a more detrimental effect on harm reduction organisations than drug dealers, preventing an open and honest discussion on drugs from taking place. 

So, what is still to be done to tackle drugs on social media? 

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to help harm reduction organisations open up the discussion of drugs on social media would be to blue tick verify their accounts. This would allow official harm reduction accounts to bypass the algorithm and remove the need for pseudonyms when discussing the topic. In social media’s current state, there is always the risk of misinformation. A system where harm reduction accounts could be verified would allow users to feel confident that they are receiving safe and accurate advice. 

Moreover, the increasing presence of ‘harm reduction influencers’ on social media presents new opportunities for making the use of drugs safer. In order to attract social media attention, organisations have started engaging with trends, taking advantage of the algorithm. This boosts the visibility of harm reduction content, meaning the right information reaches the right people. Therefore, ‘harm reduction influencers’ could well be the new face of harm reduction on social media. 

As well as this, it is clear that drug education, in its current state, has failed. Its outdated nature and inconsistent delivery are not fit for purpose. Therefore, there must be an overhaul of drug education at an institutional level. Frameworks and curriculums must be developed that reflect the ever-evolving issue of young people and drugs, and foster an open and honest discussion amongst students.

This piece was written by Volteface Intern Megan Townsend. Megan is a current MA Criminology student at Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.

Featured image licensed under CC: 

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