Dealers Remain An Issue On Instagram Despite Crackdown Efforts

By Keri Blakinger 09/17/18

The company is now working to make treatment options more readily visible as well with their new “Can we help?” pop-up.

hand navigating instagram on the phone

After repeatedly fielding allegations that their platforms helped fuel the opioid crisis, Facebook and Instagram are now taking extra steps to combat social media drug-selling and help divert users into treatment. 

Last month Facebook announced plans to redirect drug-seeking social media users to a help box offering support suggestions and, months after blocking targeted hashtags, Instagram recently decided to take a similar approach. 

“As part of Instagram’s commitment to be the kindest, safest social network, we’re launching a new pop-up within the app that offers to connect people with information about free and confidential treatment options, as well as information about substance use, prevention and recovery,” a spokesperson for the photo-sharing platform told TechCrunch in a statement.

Social media community guidelines generally ban selling drugs online, but dealers have brazenly skirted those guidelines and the law, listing their goods online with relevant hashtags to attract would-be buyers.

The growing trend sparked condemnation from Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb earlier this year. 

"Internet firms simply aren't taking practical steps to find and remove these illegal opioid listings," Gottlieb said in a speech at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in April, according to Engadget. "There's ample evidence of narcotics being advertised and sold online. I know that internet firms are reluctant to cross a threshold, where they could find themselves taking on a broader policing role. But these are insidious threats being propagated on these web platforms."

Instagram initially responded by shutting down potentially problematic search phrases like #fentanyl and #oxycontin—but dealers just shifted to unblocked hashtags instead.

Then in August, Facebook took action by adding a “Can we help?” pop-up offering links for treatment referrals to anyone searching certain drug-related phrases like “buy OxyContin” or “buy Xanax.” At the same time, the company blocked words like “OxyContin” and “Xanax” from turning up any search results for Pages and Groups. (However, it's still possible to find profile accounts with drugs included in the user name—such as the many users who simply list “Oxy Contin” as their names.) 

Then in recent weeks, Instagram reevaluated its blocking-only approach.

“Blocking hashtags has its drawbacks,” Instagram told TechCrunch. “In some cases, we are removing the communities of support that help people struggling with opioid or substance misuse.” 

Although those blocked hashtags will stay blocked, now the company is working to make treatment options more readily visible as well with their new “Can we help?” pop-up.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.