Social media platforms operate in a Wild West world of limited regulations, often hiding behind the shield of user privacy to avoid taking action against predatory accounts, spammers, and misinformation campaigns. This neglect and hands-off approach can put vulnerable users at risk of physical and psychological harm. To illustrate this point, American Addiction Centers researched the ease of finding drugs for sale on social media outlets. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long to find other users willing to sell harmful substances in dangerous quantities. Read on to uncover more of our research.
Insta-Gram, Instahigh, Instabusted
In less than five minutes, a person can go from having zero contacts that could supply him or her with illegal substances to one text message away from a vial of LSD, cocaine, and even illegal weapons. It’s a dangerous side effect of the social media boom that has given anyone, especially teens, access to the world of hardcore drug abuse. It’s also a world in which the buyer, not the seller, is affected most by the negative consequences.
Getting the Goods Online
When someone is trying to get a hold of drugs, it would be reasonable to assume that most complications occur during the actual “deal.” That’s why it may be astonishing to discover that people are selling drugs in the most blatant fashion: on major social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and the most utilized of them all, Instagram.
The word “obvious” is an understatement for how these dealers operate. With usernames like “ihavedrugs4sale.” and drug-riddled posts/pictures, these guys (and girls) eagerly flaunt their offerings. The most popular items in their stock include marijuana, prescription painkillers, xanax, molly (mdma), and lean (codeine syrup mixture). Here is just a small sample of what we came across:
We found 50 Instagram dealer accounts in the scope of a day, simply by searching for different hashtags like #weed4sale. We also took a sample of the hashtags they were using. This vaguely pill-shaped wordcloud shows the most frequently used tags:
It’s startling to say the least about how open these people are with their “activities.” For example, many of the dealers show their actual face on their profiles. Yes, you read that correctly; they are openly identifying themselves as drug dealers via their non-private Instagram accounts. In fact, of the 50 found, 17 ( or 34%) revealed their faces. They also appear to be quite proud of their business, with 56% showcasing all the cash they’ve made in various photos.
It’s Really that Easy
How exactly does this whole process work? It’s actually quite simple, and you will probably think, “Really? That’s it?”
Standard dealer profiles have a bunch of “product” photos displaying their inventory, and their contact info is usually in the bio section or comments. While some brazenly broadcast their cell phone number or email, the majority of these dealers use a messaging app called Kik. This type of platform allows for anonymity; it’s basically username-to-username messaging with no phone numbers or personal info exchanged. All you need is the dealer’s Kik handle and you’re good to go.
But what happens next? How are the orders processed and fulfilled? Well, there was only one way to find out…
In less time than it takes a person to check their Facebook news feed, we had downloaded Kik, set up an account, messaged a dealer, AND received a response back.
We tried to sound as “legit” as possible. For example, “Excuse me sir, I would like to inquire about purchasing some of your illegal substances” probably wouldn’t have gotten us very far. We decided to go with the story that our fictional character had just moved to a new area and didn’t have a hookup.
The dealer responded by saying if we sent payment via wire transfer, he could send the order out that day – that’s faster than Amazon. After a few minutes of silence on our end, he then sent a picture of LSD he wanted to sell. “How does this work?” must secretly mean “Send me the most hardcore thing you have.”
Our request for a dime bag was quickly shot down.
There is no “try before you buy” in this market, as evidently most of these dealers only ship “weight,” as one said. You may be wondering how they're shipping their supply, and you may be surprised to learn that the standard options (USPS, UPS, and FedEx) are being utilized.
Ceasing communication on our end certainly didn’t stop them from sending messages throughout the next couple of days to see if there was any continued interest. Perhaps it's the ABCs of business – always be closin’.
Overall, we messaged 10 dealers and got a response back from three of them. In each instance, all it would have taken was one more text telling them what we wanted and where to ship it.
Just Say No
While the ease of the Internet and this process can seem appealing, there are plenty of reasons why this tactic is ill-fated. For one, the recipient is assuming ALL of the risk. Needless to say, the dealer is not going to slap a return address on the package with a note saying, “If not satisfied, please return for a refund.” Obviously, they don’t want anything that could be traced back to them. If the package is intercepted by the authorities, they often let it go through, then they arrest the recipient once he or she signs for it. There's also another issue: If sent through the mail, there is the potential for a FEDERAL charge, especially since these dealers only ship large amounts.
So how are these people getting away with this, and what is Instagram doing to stop it? Well, for the ones bold enough to show their faces, several of these people are starting to be tracked and arrested. A simple google search for “instagram drug bust” will result in an ample display of dealers who shared just enough info to get caught. But for the ones who are a bit more careful, there’s a lot more that goes into it. Where do they fall in jurisdiction? Is pursuing an anonymous dealer who hasn’t proven to be a major supplier worth the resources needed to track him or her down? Those are just two of the potential problems facing law enforcement in regards to this issue, and these Instagram dealers know it – or they simply don’t care.
The biggest burden seems to fall on Instagram itself in policing the activity of its users. Instagram recently blocked several hashtags that were connected to online drug sales, however, new ones immediately popped up. So unless Instagram gets incredibly strict about posts regarding drugs or illegal substances (which is unlikely considering posting about drugs in general does not break the terms of service), then this activity will probably continue.
When trying to reach out to Instagram regarding this, we were simply redirected to their “Report Abuse” page.
In the end, this is just another example proving that what’s on the web can easily cross over into the real world, and that shielding yourself behind a screen name can apply to much more than angry comments on YouTube or some random Internet forum.
It also highlights an incredibly interesting issue that social networks are facing: When it comes down to it, are they really responsible for how people use their services? Is it their job to censor content? Should they censor content?
Most of all, this just proves a recurring theme in history; with every new technology that emerges, new ways to use it illegally will immediately follow. It’s almost a law of human nature.
Feel free to use any of the images found in this project. When doing so, please attribute the creators by linking to this project so your audience may learn about the methodology and access all assets that are available.