Instagram brings drug content to teens


Instagram posts drug-related content to teenage accounts, According to research by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) watchdog group. While the company has pledged to crack down on drug sales, it continues to suggest hashtags related to the purchase of illegal substances to children as young as 13, research shows.

As part of its investigation into the experience of minors on the platform, TTP created seven different fake teenage accounts. He revealed that the company’s algorithms were helping hypothetical minors between the ages of 13 and 17 come into contact with drug dealers claiming to sell MDMA and fentanyl.

The news comes as Instagram boss Adam Mosseri prepares to testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday. She is likely to be asked by members of Congress to talk about the potentially negative impact Instagram has on children.

“I encourage Congress to ask him if he allows children to use Instagram and if he monitors their activity,” said Katie Paul, director of TTP. “It takes 20 seconds to come into contact with an alleged drug trafficker. The accounts tell you they are children. This is the most shocking thing. The platform’s business model is clearly based on the possibility of accessing younger users. If they are unable to do so without pushing children to these risks, it requires much more investigation by lawmakers. “

Tuesday, Instagram announced a series of changes related to teen safety on the app. These included parental controls that will allow parents to limit the time their children spend on the app, options to prevent people from tagging people under the age of 16 if those people aren’t following them, and a feature called “take a break”. this will encourage users to quit the app more frequently.

TTP defines drug dealers as accounts offering non-medical and pharmaceutical drugs for sale. The organization did not purchase drugs as part of its investigation, which means that some of the dealer accounts it has identified could be scams.

When one of the teenage accounts logged into Instagram, it only took two taps to reach an account claiming to sell xanax or fentanyl. On the other hand, it takes five presses to disconnect from the Instagram application.

“They make it hard to disconnect, but easy to find drugs,” Paul said.

TTP reported 50 messages from suspected drug dealer accounts. Instagram found that 72% did violate company community guidelines, according to the researchers. This included a “buy xanax” account that twice called one of 15-year-old TTP’s fake accounts through Instagram Messenger. Instagram said it deleted 12 of the posts as well as an entire account that violated its company policies, TTP noted. However, when researchers verified, the account that was believed to have been deleted was still operational. NBC independently corroborated this conclusion.

Stephanie Otway, spokesperson for Meta, Instagram’s parent company, said in a statement about the findings that “we are banning the sale of drugs on Instagram. We removed 1.8 million pieces of content related to drug sales in the last quarter alone, and thanks to improvements in our detection technology, the prevalence of this content is approximately 0.05% of the content viewed, or approximately 5 views per 10,000. We will continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep Instagram safe, especially for the younger members of our community.

Younger markets

Since 2012, Instagram has struggled to attract younger users. The the company’s own research has found that the number of teenage Facebook users has declined significantly since 2019 and is expected to continue to decline over the next two years. Even Instagram, which remains popular among young people, shows less engagement from teens.

In 2018, Instagram began spending almost all of its marketing budget, estimated at around $ 390 million in 2021, on targeting teens, according to the New York Times. The company has particularly focused on 13-15 year olds. He later began developing an Instagram Kids app specifically for 13 and under, but suspended efforts amid reluctance from regulators and child safety advocates.

The platform’s impact on adolescents was criticized in September when The Wall Street Journal published an internal study suggesting that Instagram is making body image problems worse for some teenage girls. The search came from a mine of documents provided by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Earlier this year, Instagram announced that it would make profiles private by default for users under the age of 16. But TTP found that the policy only applied to profiles created through the Instagram app. When TPP created an account for a 15-year-old through Instagram’s website, the account was public by default.

Automatic medication filling

While Instagram forbids hashtags such as #fentanyl, #oxycontin, and #mdma, when a TTP teenage account searched for #mdma, Instagram automatically filled in the drug-related hashtags in the search bar. The same was true when a teenage account searched for “buyxanax” and “buyfentanyl”. If a teenage account clicked on one of the suggested accounts, they “instantly got a direct line to a xanax. [or fentanyl] dealer ”, according to the TTP report.

In the statement, Otway said the company is reviewing additional hashtags to see if they violate company policies.

The drug pipeline became clearer when a teenage account followed an alleged drug dealer. In this case, Instagram recommended other accounts purporting to sell drugs. Often, dealers would mention specific drugs in their usernames, clearly indicating the types of substances they were offering.

One of the “buy xanax” accounts tracked by TTP sent a direct message to the fake teenager within 24 hours asking what he would like to buy. “They shouldn’t be able to contact teens,” Paul said.

The process is of particular concern with fentanyl, which has contributed to a deadly drug overdose spike in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Santa Clara County, California, near Facebook headquarters, 73 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2020, including a 12-year-old girl.

“I would say Instagram is one of the worst places to get exposed to this type of content,” said Tim Mackey, a professor at the University of California at San Diego and founder of S-3, a company that tracks social media. online sales of illegal drugs. . He noted that drug traffickers use Instagram to share their contact information, even though they push people to other platforms to complete the following parts of the drug trade.

Change efforts

In 2018, Instagram started showing users a pop-up if they searched for hashtags like “opioid”. He said, “If you or someone you know is suffering from opioid or substance abuse, find ways to get free and confidential treatment referrals, as well as information on drug addiction, prevention and treatment. recovery. The company acknowledged that it was used by people who wanted to buy drugs, as well as by people with drug addiction issues.

“Platforms often say that if we monitor this content, we remove some of the good content,” Mackey said. “But I think the classification to distinguish between drug trafficking and substance abuse behavior content is easy to do.”


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