The opioid epidemic has claimed a staggering amount of lives yet social media platforms still fail stop users from selling drugs on their websites.
If you log in to Instagram — as 800 million people do every month — you will not see any topless pictures of women, however, you will find various pictures of pills linked to accounts with email addresses and phone numbers and usernames for encrypted messenger services like Kik, probably belonging to drug dealers and illegitimate online pharmacies.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, took some action against the use of their platform for promoting drug culture.
A search for #Oxycontin produced zero results. Similarly, #Fentanyl and #Ketamine also show limited results with a message by the site, “Recent posts from #Fentanyl are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram's community guidelines.”
A spokesperson for Instagram said the social media giants have “zero tolerance” for buying and selling prescription drugs on their platform.
“Community guidelines make it clear that buying or selling prescription drugs isn't allowed on Instagram, and we have zero tolerance when it comes to content that puts the safety of our community at risk,” said the spokesperson.
However, critics say this crackdown comes a little late despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg terming the severity of “the opioid crisis” his biggest surprise on his “year of travel” around the U.S.
The death toll from drug overdoses doubled between 2010 and 2016, with the numbers rising from 21,089 deaths all over the country to 42,249.
Yet Instagram’s ban on drug-related hashtags did not come from self-revelation; instead, a tech entrepreneur flagged several common hashtags to a Facebook executive.
Glassbreakers CEO Eileen Carey formerly worked on pharmaceutical intellectual property abuse. She said flagging of accounts and posts did not make much of difference, nor did it garner the required attention from Instagram.
"Instagram has allowed this to happen to a point where no one is hiding it," said Carey.
The Facebook executive contacted by Carey on Twitter said the site was working to make reporting such accounts easier than before, and accounts and hashtags reported by Carey were temporarily banned.
“In this case, we are grateful to those who reported the content. We took swift action to remove the content and put in place additional measures to ensure the safety of our platform,” the spokesperson said.
This isn’t the first time the issue has been highlighted. In 2014, after an article called out Instagram for hashtags like #XanaxForSale, Facebook issued a basic statement that basically ceded responsibility.
"...If your photos or videos are promoting the sale of regulated goods or services, including firearms, alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, or adult products, we expect you to make sure you're following the law and to encourage others to do the same," the statement said.
Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, internet companies cannot be held responsible for user-generated content, giving them immunity from facing consequences for any unlawful practices taking place on their platform. Still, companies are supposed to protect users in good faith.
Carmen Catizone, executive director at the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, thinks the online availability of drugs has become a bigger problem in recent years.
"I think the companies are struggling to decide what to do and what not to do ... [But] extra due diligence would save a life,” said Catizone, reiterating the responsibility of the social media sites to their users.
Instagram also faced criticism for only reacting to the evident problem when reported rather than taking precautionary steps to ban such posts in the first place. For instance, the world “nipples” is completely banned from the site, but drug-related hashtags and posts persist, signaling that Instagram believes a topless picture of a woman causes more harm than an online market for potential deaths.
Tech companies also do not like to talk about the process of content moderation and what goes into it. Zuckerberg said there is a team of 15,000 people who work on content review and security for 2 billion Facebook users. He wants to increase that number to 20,000 by the end of the year.
It is important to note banning hashtags is a mammoth task. While #oxycontin shows no results, #oxy still produces substantial results on Instagram.
The Food and Drug Administration called out specific social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google, for enabling the drug epidemic. The condemnation should add pressure on the sites to work toward a safer environment for their users.
“We find offers to purchase opioids all over social media and the Internet. Internet firms simply aren't taking practical steps to find and remove these illegal opioid listings,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta.
"This epidemic has not been caused by the Internet — but it's the next wave," said Libby Baney, founder and executive director of Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, talking about the responsibility of tech companies to put their foot down and take ethical responsibility for the welfare of their users.
Google had to pay $500 million to the Department of Justice in 2011 after it displayed prescription drug ads from Canadian online pharmacies to U.S. consumers.
Thumbnail/Banner credits: REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic