How One Woman Got Instagram To Crack Down On Drug Hashtags

By Paul Gaita 04/11/18

The woman spent three years reporting accounts that were allegedly selling opioids through the app before action was taken.

person using instagram app on iPhone

After reporting Instagram accounts that appeared to promote or sell opioids for years, entrepreneur Eileen Carey took her quest directly to the app's owners at Facebook, who responded by removing numerous accounts and banning or restricting hashtags like #oxycontin.

Carey, who co-founded the peer marketing firm Glassbreakers, sent a tweet to Rob Leathern, director of product management at Facebook, about the accounts, which resulted in the removal of several accounts and a response from Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president of product, who thanked her for her vigilance.

A feature on Wired detailed Carey's journey to get Instagram to take action. She had spent three years reporting accounts which appeared to be selling opioids through the app, but to little effect.

On March 30 of this year, she took to Twitter to appeal directly to Facebook executives. "The historical response that users can report abuse and moderators will review hasn't changed in 4 years," she wrote in the tweet. "Please hold leadership accountable."

Leathern responded the following day, noting the removal of several flagged accounts and the hashtag #oxycontin, and tagged Rosen, whom Carey thanked in a March 31 tweet. She also noted that the hashtag #fentanyl remained on Instagram, and was included in approximately 16,000 posts.

"Working on it," Rosen wrote. "We won't fix everything overnight (and I totally recognize we have a lot of catching up in these areas), but we have a responsibility and we will improve."

Since then, searches for opioid-related hashtags, including #fentanyl and #opiates, produce only a limited number of results, and are accompanied by a message which states: "Recent posts from [the hashtag] are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram's community guidelines."

The actions come at a critical time for Facebook, which is already facing government scrutiny for its role in the harvesting of user data by Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm linked to Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Facebook, along with other social media companies, drew criticism from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb for a perceived lack of action in policing their platforms for drug-related content.

For some, like Libby Baney, executive director of the Alliance of Safe Online Pharmacies, the move comes later than expected for a major social media company.

"It shouldn't take this much effort to get people to realize that you have some responsibility for the stuff on your platform," she said. "A 13-year-old could do this search and realize there's bad stuff on your platform—and probably has—you don't need the commissioner of the FDA to tell you that. It's great that he did, but it shouldn't have gotten to this point."

Gottlieb addressed social media's responsibility at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit on April 4. In prepared remarks, he stated 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."

As Wired noted, the FDA will meet with executives from technology companies as well as academics and drug responsibility advocates this summer to discuss solutions to this issue, including changes to search algorithms to let potential opioid buyers know about the risks involved in such purchases, as well as treatment options.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.