Instagram isn’t just for showing off your hottest selfies or sharing snaps of your lunch that no one cares about–it’s also apparently a great place for those struggling with drug addictions to connect with drug dealers. While the platform has long been a place where some users try to hock everything from guns to sex, Instagram’s algorithms are now working overtime to make it easier for people to buy illegal drugs.
As the Washington Post reports, searching for the hashtags #oxy, #percocet, #painkillers, #painpills, #oxycontin, #adderall, and #painrelief will return a plethora of posts from Instagram users. Those users may be struggling with addiction, partying like it’s nobody’s business, or dealing the hashtagged drugs online. The problem is Instagram’s algorithms can’t distinguish the context the hashtags are used in. And if a user then follows a dealer using the hashtags, Instagram’s algorithms then suggest that user follow more drug dealers:
Following the dealer accounts, or even liking one of the dealer posts, prompted Instagram’s algorithms to work as designed–in this case, by filling up a person’s feed with posts for drugs, suggesting other sellers to follow and introducing new hashtags, such as #xansforsale. Ads from some of the country’s largest brands, including Target, Chase and Procter & Gamble, as well as Facebook’s own video streaming service, appeared next to posts illegally selling pills.
For what it’s worth, the ability to be connected with drug dealers via social media isn’t a problem unique to Instagram. The same types of posts are widespread on Facebook (which owns Instagram) and Twitter. In recent months Instagram has blocked search results for certain hashtags, such as #fentanyl, #cocaine, and #heroin, all illegal substances. But dealers simply switched to hashtagging their posts with legal drug names, or slightly tweaked the spelling of drug names–and then proceeding to sell both legal and illegal drugs to Instagram users when they connect with them outside of the platform.
Yet still, Instagram’s owner Facebook says it’s aware of the problem and is working to put a stop to the sale of illegal drugs through Instagram, though its initiatives are still in the “early stages.” As Facebook’s vice president for global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, told the Washington Post:
“We’re not yet sophisticated enough to tease apart every post to see if it’s trying to sell someone illegal drugs or they are taking Xanax [because] they are stressed out. Obviously, there is some stuff that gets through that is totally against our policy, and we’re getting better at it.”