Social Media Algorithms as Triggers: Wish-ing for a Meth Pipe

By Sean Mahoney 10/03/19

Imagine if Spencer’s Gifts from the mall in the 80’s smoked crack, got skyrocketed into the future, and became a Black Mirror episode. 

Image: 
woman in red, knit cap perplexed by Facebook algorithm
Is this where we are now? © Sergiomonti | Dreamstime.com

Working in the digital world, publishing online, and playing the whole social media gig, there are certain things you have to make peace with as a sober person like myself. For instance:

Every day, Facebook will ask if I want to stroll down a memory lane of old updates, many of which feature me with a red bloated face and a pinched hammered look in every picture. Hard pass, FB! But thanks for asking! Ditto I have learned to live with my Instagram feed being filled with people I follow but might not really know (or like, for that matter) as they endlessly post about White Claw or rosé all day

Is It Possible for Targeted Advertising to Go Too Far?

Then there are the ads and accounts for weed enthusiasts, microbrews, and wine tours that follow you on Twitter based on a few tweets that happen to have the words booze or weed in them, regardless of context. Oh social media, you’re so delightful. But is it possible for the algorithms and targeted advertising to get out of control and maybe cross a line? Can a company be so far off base with their social media ads that people in recovery can even feel triggered? In the case of the disaster that is Wish.com’s Facebook marketing strategy, I would emphatically say yes.

Listen, with a decade plus of sobriety, I try to accept the things I cannot change and the many problematic aspects of Facebook fall squarely in that category. Name something about the social media platform that is awful and troublesome and I will totally agree with you. Yet I still use the damn thing, mainly because as a writer it’s super useful. Also, I’m an addict and maybe mildly hooked on the instant approval I receive every time I post something funny. Regardless, I’ve leaned into its ridiculousness so it takes a lot to make me notice how insane it can be.

That is, until a few months ago. I was scrolling endlessly, as one does, and stumbled upon a Wish.com ad for bullets. Not bullets for guns, but bullets as in the little plastic canisters that hold your cocaine. For people who didn’t share my affinity for that substance or other sniffable powders, bullets were a handy, very 90’s way to keep your blow on you and do it without going to the bathroom to cut lines on the back of gay bar toilets, as glamourous as that all sounds. 

Bullets, Meth Pipes, Sex Toys, and Poppers

The ad featured the bullets in a variety of colors and they were only a dollar! What a bargain! I naturally took a screenshot of the ad and turned it into one of those aforementioned hilarious posts. Mainly, it was just so jaw-droppingly blunt that I felt like it needed to be laughed at and shared. Like, really? This is where we are, Facebook? Ads for the new Mindy Kaling movie and Dove Bars alongside cocaine bullets? I mean, talk about spot-on algorithms, but good lord. Obviously, I’m an open book (to a fault sometimes) and I have shared bluntly on Facebook about my drug use. Therefore, I get the ads appropriate to what I talk about. Still, this one felt a little too on the nose, as it were. 

Thankfully, I have been sober for a long time, so it didn’t trigger me. But the sheer wildness of the ad was hard to get out of my head.

A couple of weeks later, a friend posted a Wish ad for meth pipes, poppers, and sex toys. A former meth addict and gay man himself, his post expressed amazement at the brazenness of the items and basically called out Wish.com for providing all the tools for a relapse on his timeline. The comments from other sober folks echoed his shock, expressing disgust and anger over such garbage thrown carelessly in someone’s ad feed. 

Yes, of course, you can block Wish. Yes, you can report them and take them out of your timeline. However, you don’t get a choice in the beginning. These ads just show up on your page uninvited, regardless of what’s happening in your life and in your recovery. 

Days after that post, another gay male friend in recovery shared a similar status about Wish and their ads. Obviously, I was far from alone in my reaction to the inappropriateness of the ads. In fact, there are entire Facebook groups devoted to how insane Wish.com is. Oh, it’s not just drug paraphernalia. It’s everything from magnetic weight loss bracelets to weird teeth-whitening lasers. Oh and don’t even fall down the rabbit hole of all their wacky apparel and sexy underwear like this writer did if you at all value your time. It’s like if Spencer’s Gifts from the mall in the 80’s smoked crack, got skyrocketed into the future, and became a Black Mirror episode. 

How Well Do You Really Know Me, Facebook?

Of course, for Wish, none of these ads are personal. They have a whole bunch of crap and they want to sell it to you. Wish doesn’t know I had an epic drug problem nor does it care. Again, I get it. While vast and certainly random af, Wish’s inventory is not the problem. What seems more problematic is that a platform like Facebook has zero regulation or even a thought process about what’s being advertised to the people who use their service. You’d think in a country with an exploding meth epidemic, ads for glass pipes would be off limits, algorithms be damned. Their refusal to address this seems odd, since Facebook takes great pride in how accurately it can read our minds, suggesting who we should be friends with, what pages we should like, and what we should buy. So the fact that someone like me, who very much lives and breathes sobriety out loud on social media, can still get these kinds of ads proves maybe they don’t know us all that well at all. 

Besides, shouldn’t we draw a line somewhere prohibiting certain things from being advertised? Meth accessories might be a good place to start that line.

Also not fantastic is what seems to be the blatant targeting of these kind of products to gay men. In a community with a higher rate of addiction, death, and mental illness, it blows my mind that alcohol companies still sponsor pride festivals, travel companies shill drug-soaked vacation packages, and social media platforms suggest products used in practices that are literally killing the population they’re targeting. 

This is an advertising hat trick as old as the game itself: market to the folks who use it the most. But like cigarettes or alcohol billboards plastered all over economically depressed neighborhoods, it feels like a cheap shot to push this stuff to gay men who innocently log on to Facebook. 

Yet at the end of the day, it’s a drinking and using man’s world so I’m sure very little can be done. If I am in a good spot emotionally in my sobriety, I can go to bars, walk down grocery store wine aisles, and even look at meth pipe ads. But what about people new to recovery, fresh off their last run? Or someone in a vulnerable place and craving their drug? There’s a reason they tell us to stay away from bars or other using-associated cues in early sobriety. 

Maybe if enough of us block, report, and unfollow, something will happen. Or is that too much to Wish for? 

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Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition.

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