Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media

In this report, Volteface aims to bridge the gap in understanding of how social media is being used as a marketplace for illicit drugs and the impact this is having on young people – social media’s primary user group. Written by Liz McCulloch and Scarlett Furlong.

This report examines how prevalent this phenomenon is, which platforms are most likely to host this activity, what drugs are being advertised, how the platforms are being used, and what impact this is having on young people’s wellbeing, as well as the challenges facing social media regulators and law enforcement.

This research used a mixed methodology of both qualitative and quantitative research.To ascertain the prevalence of this phenomenon, Volteface commissioned Survation in January 2019 to conduct a nationally representative poll of 2,006 16-to-24 year olds.

Prevalence

One in four young people (24%) reported that they see illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media – a significant figure considering how recent a phenomenon this is.

Of those who reported seeing illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media:
•56% saw drugs being advertised on Snapchat, 55% on Instagram and 47% on Facebook.
•63% saw cannabis being advertised – making it the most commonly seen drug advertised for sale.

•Cocaine was the second drug most commonly seen advertised (26%), followed by MDMA/Ecstasy (24%), Xanax (20%), Nitrous Oxide (17%) and Codeine/Lean (16%).
•72% said that they see illegal drugs advertised for sale on social media sites or apps once a month or more.
•36% were not concerned by seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media. Worryingly, this percentage increased the younger the respondent. 33% aged 18+ were not concerned, but this jumped to 48% for under-18s.

The data indicated that there is an association between frequency of social media use and the likelihood of seeing drugs advertised for sale. The baseline of seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media is 24%. This increases to 29% of respondents who use social media every hour, compared to 14% of respondents who use social media once a day.

Impact

Seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media may normalise drug use, interviews with young people and professionals revealed. The evidence base corroborates this, for example, the frequency of seeing gambling advertisements plays a strong role in the normalisation of gambling in sports. Additionally, the evidence suggests that advertising is more persuasive and effective when conducted in familiar settings, such as on people’s social media feeds, and studies have shown that paid social media advertising has an impact on consumer buying behaviour.

Social media has made it easier for young people to buy drugs. Dealers can be found in an accessible way through platforms and without young people needing to have an existing drug user network. Even if a person already had access to a network, it was found that social media provides widened access to a range of dealers and drugs. Once a network is found, social media’s in-built design features can then help expand this network. For example, the ‘suggested friend’ function can recommend other dealers. Greater accessibility can lead to an increase in: drug use, the likelihood of people starting to use drugs and access to a wider variety of drugs.

Interviews revealed that social media platforms have made drug dealing easier to get into and sustain as social media provides a familiar and easy-to-use interface that gives dealers the option to operate anonymously, without having to engage in face-to-face interactions. The interconnectedness of social media is beneficial for sellers as they can increase their exposure and expand their client base. However, this visibility can lead to dealers, particularly those who are young, forgetting the legal risks attached to supplying drugs.

Regulation and Enforcement

Volteface’s research reveals that, among the police, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the role that social media plays in drug dealing. Additionally, the use of ever evolving coded language and emojis can make it challenging for police and social media platforms to identify accounts that are suspected of supplying drugs. Volteface also identified that there is a reluctance from young people to report the content in question.

Conclusion

Social media is providing drug dealers with easy-to-use and familiar platforms that they can utilise to find and build trust with customers, advertise their business, and disguise their activities. Concerningly, Volteface’s research has shown that dealers have been quick to take up this opportunity, with one in four young people now seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media.

The emergence of drug markets on social media is not simply a transfer of harmful activity from the offline world onto the online world. It is a new problem which presents new threats. Regulators and enforcers will not be able to tackle this new, illicit online drug market and minimise the harms associated with it unless innovative approaches are put in place.

Prepared by Madeleine Cooper

Progress - National Consortium of Consultant Nurses in Dual Diagnosis & Substance Use