“DM for details”: is Social Media the new marketplace for drug dealing?

Social Media is a dominant focal point of today’s society. From gaining followers on Instagram to posting videos on TikTok, our social media platforms are a way of staying connected with the latest trends and developments across the world.

However, the ethnographic trawl of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram has recently revealed how drugs are being advertised and bought through social media platforms. Drug dealers appear to be advertising their drugs by posting content on their social media showing what drugs they have available, the price,  the quality they are selling them for and requesting those interested to “directly message” or “DM” them.  

A study conducted by Volteface found that one in four (24%) of young people reported that they see illicit drug advertisement on social media. Of those that reported seeing the sale of illicit drugs, 56% were on Snapchat, 55% on Instagram and 47% on Facebook.

Searching “Key Phrases”

The investigation conducted by Radio 1 Newsbeat found that by inputting “key phrases” related to drugs, potential users could easily find dealers at the tap of a button. 

While platforms such as Instagram have implemented preventions, such as an algorithm to check certain phrases or hashtags that coincide with drugs or drug-related posts, there is still a clear lack of action and protection for young people.

In the current ‘on-demand generation’, technology’s growth into a more ‘user-focused’ and intuitive service could pose greater risk if adequate protections are not put in place.  

Social Media’s in-built design

The growth of technology has brought a wave of ‘user-focused ad-ons’.  The new in-build design features are allowing dealers to expand and professionalise their business. The well known ‘search bar’ often used to search famous celebrities and rising stars is also being used to identify dealers and for dealers to identify vulnerable young people willing to buy. Hashtags are being used to gain a wider reach while the  ‘suggested friends’ function allows suggestions to be made based on liked history, location and other connections. As technology becomes more intuitive, we can expect greater use of this functionality within the drugs market.

 Impact

The impact of this is tenfold. Firstly, by witnessing the selling and advertising of drugs online, drug use is becoming normalised. This is a similar outcome to how studies have shown that the frequency of seeing gambling advertisements plays a strong role in the normalisation of gambling in sports, evidence is suggesting that, as advertising is becoming more persuasive and suggestive, the effect could be similar to young people’s acceptance of drugs.  

Secondly, social media is making it easier to buy drugs directly. The investigation by Volteface found the below drugs were the most commonly purchased and advertised on social media;

  1. Cannabis (63%);
  2. Cocaine was the second drug most commonly seen advertised (26%);
  3. MDMA/Ecstasy (24%);
  4. Xanax (20%);
  5. Nitrous Oxide (17%); and
  6. Codeine/Lean (16%).

As these drug advertisements contain Category A drugs, this raises growing concerns as to whether adequate protections are in place. The statistics from the NHS Drug Misuse Report 2019 found that 2,917 deaths were related to drug misuse; a 17% increase on 2017 and 46% higher than 2008.

While the in-built feature of ‘suggested friends’ on Instagram was implemented with positive intentions, it is actually helping to expand the network of young people to attract potentially harmful dealers.

Thirdly, selling drugs is becoming increasingly common due to the easy-to-use and familiar interface, as it gives drug dealers the option to operate anonymously. As such, with social media being an everyday enjoyment for many young people, there are growing fears that young people will forget the legal implications of dealing drugs as they see it becoming increasingly normalised on these platforms.

Regulation and enforcement

Volteface’s research found that among the police, there is a huge lack of awareness and understanding of how the technical aspect of social media is encouraging drug dealing. This, alongside the use of coded language and emojis, is making it challenging for local authorities and social media platform developers to identify accounts that are suspected of supplying drugs.

Encryption and VPN technology are making it increasingly difficult to track and trace suspected dealers. Even with protections in place, dealers can simply delete accounts and start their business afresh using another anonymous account.

The colloquialism “snitches get stitches” contributes to the stigma that young people are afraid of speaking out about their involvement in pressurised or voluntary drug-use, for fear of being assaulted and harassed by those involved in the supply chain. This is a growing obstacle to the identification of individuals involved.

The emergence of drug dealing on social media is not a minor or simple issue. With questions being raised regarding the online safety of children and young adults, innovative and fast-acting solutions are required to ensure that social media does not become the new marketplace for drugs.

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