Eileen Carey says she has regularly reported Instagram accounts selling opioids to the company for three years, with few results. Last week, Carey confronted two executives of Facebook, which owns Instagram, about the issue on Twitter. Since then, Instagram removed some accounts, banned one opioid-related hashtag and restricted the results for others.
Searches for the hashtag #oxycontin on Instagram now show no results. Other opioid-related hashtags, such as #opiates, #fentanyl, and #narcos, surface a limited number of results along with a message stating, “Recent posts from [the hashtag] are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” Some accounts that appeared to be selling opioids on Instagram also were removed.
The moves come amid increased government concern about the role of tech platforms in opioid abuse, and follow years of media reports about the illegal sale of opioids on Instagram and Facebook, from the BBC, Venturebeat, CNBC, Sky News and others. Following the BBC probe in 2013, Instagram blocked searches of terms associated with the sale of illegal drugs.
On Wednesday, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb criticized social-media companies, including Facebook and Instagram, for not doing enough to police illegal activity. “I know that internet firms are reluctant to cross a threshold, where they could find themselves taking on a broader policing role,” he said. “But these are insidious threats being propagated on these web platforms.”
Gottlieb contrasted the tech industry’s inaction on opiates to the sale of child pornography, where internet providers and social media “stepped in to crack down on illegal activities when they’ve been forced,” he said.
The FDA plans a summit this summer with tech CEOs, academics, and advocates to discuss solutions, such as “altering search algorithms” to inform potential buyers about health risks and effective treatment programs, Gottlieb said.
In February, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Pinterest, urging them to reduce illegal online drug sales and advertising.
Libby Baney, executive director of the Alliance of Safe Online Pharmacies, a nonprofit group supported by pharmaceutical manufacturers that works to halt illegal online drug sales, agrees with Gottlieb. When she has raised concerns about content related to opiods with a tech-industry trade group, Baney says representatives are willing to discuss ads, but not user-generated content. “The holy grail, or maybe in this case the third rail, is: ‘We don’t touch the algorithm. We only talk about ads.’ So to have the commissioner say the word ‘algorithm’ is monumental,” Baney says.
“It shouldn’t take this much effort to get people to realize that you have some responsibility for the stuff on your platform,” Baney says. “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.”
Marcia Lee Taylor, chief policy officer at Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, who has worked with Facebook through the same tech industry trade group, says the company has been helpful by donating ad space to reach families seeking help for addiction, who can then contact the group’s toll-free hotline through the Facebook Messenger app.
In a statement, Instagram spokesperson Emily Cain, said, “Our community guidelines make it clear that buying or selling prescription drugs isn’t allowed on Instagram and we have zero tolerance when it comes to content that puts the safety of our community at risk.”
Instagram did not respond to questions about why it had not addressed the issue until now. “We are grateful to those who reported the content. We took swift action to remove the content and put in place additional measures to ensure the safety on our platform,” the company said.
Instagram previously restricted the drug-related hashtags, #Xanax and #Xanaxbar and banned #weedforsale and #weed4sale. “We are constantly monitoring hashtag behavior using a variety of different signals to track bad hashtags,” the company said.
Carey is now the CEO of Glassbreakers, a startup maker of software to support workforce diversity. But she worked on illegal drug sales in her previous job at MarkMonitor, a company that protects brands like pharmaceutical companies from online counterfeiting, piracy, and fraud. In a Mar. 30 tweet to Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, Carey wrote, “The historical response that users can report abuse and moderators will review hasn’t changed in 4 years.” She asked him to “Please hold leadership accountable.”
The next day, Leathern responded that the company had removed several associated accounts and tagged Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product.
In a message to Rosen, Carey thanked him for taking down the hashtag #oxycontin, but noted that about 16,000 posts with the hashtag #fentanyl remained on Instagram. “Working on it,” Rosen responded. “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. I’ll circle back later this week on this specific once I’ve gotten more up to speed. I do really really appreciate your pings on this. THANK YOU.”
The speed of Facebook’s response raises questions about why the company did not act sooner, and reflects a recent phenomenon where Facebook executives engage as the human face of the company on Twitter. Leathern and Rosen declined to comment, directing WIRED to Facebook’s press team, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Tim K. Mackey, associate professor of anesthesiology and global public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, who has used machine learning to identify illegal drug sales on sites like Twitter, says researching Facebook may be more difficult because the company restricts access to much of its data.
This article was syndicated from wired.com