Snapchat has faced increasing criticism in recent years as the opioid crisis plays out on social media, often with tragic results.
In October, an NBC investigation reported the stories of a number of young people aged 13 to 23 who died after purchasing fentanyl-laced pills on Snapchat. Snapchat parent company Snap responded by committing to improve its ability to detect and remove this kind of content and ushering users who search for drug-related content to an educational harm reduction portal.
Snapchat provided a glimpse at its progress against illicit drug sales on the platform, noting that 88 percent of the drug-related content it finds is now identified proactively by automated systems, with community reporting accounting for the other 12 percent. Snap says this number is up by a third since its October update, indicating that more of this content is being detected up front before being identified by users.
“Since this fall, we have also seen another important indicator of progress: a decline in community-reported content related to drug sales,” Snap wrote in a blog post. “In September, over 23% of drug-related reports from Snapchatters contained content specifically related to sales, and as a result of proactive detection work, we have driven that down to 16% as of this month. This marks a decline of 31% in drug-related reports. We will keep working to get this number as low as possible.”
The company says that it also recently introduced a new safeguard that prevents 13 to 17 year-old users from showing up in its Quick Add user search results unless they have friends in common with the person searching. That precaution is meant to discourage minors from connecting with users they don’t know, in this case to deter online drug transactions.
Snapchat is also adding information from the CDC on the dangers of fentanyl into its “Heads Up” harm reduction portal and partnering with the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), a global nonprofit working to “prevent substance misuse through collaborative community efforts.”
The company works with experts to identify new search terms that sellers use to get around its rules against selling illicit substances. Snapchat calls the work to keep its lexicon of drug sales jargon up to date “a constant, ongoing effort.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration published a warning last month about the dangers of pills purchased online that contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is deadlier in much smaller doses than heroin. Because fentanyl increasingly shows up in illicitly purchased drugs, including those purchased online, it can prove fatal to users who believed they were ingesting other substances.
In December, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram called Snapchat and other social media apps “haven[s] for drug traffickers” in a December interview with CBS. “Because drug traffickers are harnessing social media because it is accessible, they’re able to access millions of Americans and it is anonymous and they’re able to sell these fake pills that are not what they say they are,” Milgram said.
While social media platforms dragged their feet about investing in proactive, aggressive content moderation, online drug sales took root. Companies have sealed up some of the more obvious ways to find illicit drugs online (a few years ago it was as simple as searching #painpills on Instagram, for instance) but savvy sellers adapt their practices to get around new rules as they’re made.
The rise of fentanyl is a significant factor exacerbating the American opioid epidemic and the substance’s prevalence in online sales presents unique challenges. In an October hearing on children’s online safety, Snap called the issue the company’s “top priority,” but many lawmakers and families affected by online drug sales remain skeptical that social media companies are taking their role in the opioid crisis seriously.