Facebook is a major vehicle in the spread of fake news and damaging misinformation about the US opioid crisis, a study has found.
The research, carried out by public health experts at Northeasten University in Boston, focused on reports of first responders overdosing on fentanyl just by touching or being near the drug – a myth debunked by the American College of Medical Toxicology in 2017.
To be published in December’s issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy, the study analysed the impact of 551 news articles published between 2015 and 2019 about people overdosing from incidental exposure to fentanyl, the potent opioid behind around 30,000 drug deaths a year in the US.
It found that 92 percent of these news stories – 37 of which were published by the national media – featured misinformation about casual exposure to fentanyl. These 506 stories clocked up 450,011 Facebook shares, garnering an estimated 70 million views.
One story originated from a 2016 DEA press release that incorrectly stated “a small amount [of fentanyl] ingested or absorbed through the skin can kill you”. A video featured two officers from Atlantic County, New Jersey who describe an “overdose” event after inhaling airborne fentanyl. They talk about loss of blood flow to the face, disorientation and shortness of breath, symptoms consistent with panic attacks, not a fentanyl OD. The press release and video prompted at least 80 news stories.
The most viral story (133,751 Facebook shares across 25 states, with a potential reach of nearly 21 million user views) involved an East Liverpool, Ohio officer who claimed to have “[felt] his body shutting down” when he brushed white powder off his uniform after a 2017 traffic stop. He received four doses of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone before being “revived.” Neither the composition of the powder nor his overdose was confirmed in laboratory testing.
The second most-shared fake story (45,533 Facebook shares, with a potential reach of 7 million user views) occurred in Columbus, Ohio, when an officer was given Narcan after inhaling what he thought was fentanyl during an arrest at a truck stop in 2018. However, it was later confirmed there was no fentanyl at the scene.
Only 18 of the 551 articles the study looked at correctly refuted the fentanyl exposure story. These articles received just 29,652 Facebook shares – 6 percent of the shares received by the false stories – with a potential 4.5 million views.
The report’s authors said the spread of fentanyl panic stories has had “real-world consequences”, and a failure to effectively address the spread of misinformation can cost lives and resources. Some first responders have reported increased stress as they think they are dealing with a highly contagious chemical, while others may have delayed helping OD victims to avoid perceived potential health risks to themselves.
This myth, the authors said, has meant public funds continue to be wasted to address non-existent “biohazard” threats. It has further stigmatized substance users as being contagious and dangerous, and even strengthened counterproductive policies such as drug-induced homicide, suggesting fentanyl should be designated a weapon of mass destruction.
It criticised the DEA and other government agencies for being “slow to counter and remedy misleading statements, raising questions about objectivity and conflicts of interest”.
Yesterday, under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit, celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Ruffalo boycotted Instagram and Facebook for 24 hours to protest the platforms’ failure to control misinformation.
“As is evident from the emerging proliferation of misinformation about COVID-19, crisis situations breed panic and rumors,” said the report. “In the context of the overdose crisis, misinformation about overdose risk from casual fentanyl contact has quickly permeated mainstream and social media, receiving massive excess visibility over corrective content nationwide, particularly on the social media platform Facebook, the leading source of COVID-19 misinformation in this ‘infodemic’.”
Yesterday, Facebook said in a statement to the Guardian, “Thanks to our global network of fact-checkers, from April to June we applied warning labels to 98 million pieces of COVID-19 misinformation and removed 7 million pieces of content that could lead to imminent harm.”
Last year, a VICE investigation revealed that police, the US government and health authorities were spreading inaccurate scare stories about drug dealers deliberately lacing America’s recreational drug supply with fentanyl.
The report’s authors concluded: “Misinformation about risks of casual fentanyl exposure goes largely uncorrected in mainstream and social media. This can deflect from real solutions, while resource expenditures on fictitious risks should be redirected toward treatment and harm reduction. Better tools are needed to change misinformed health narratives.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We will update this article when they do.