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That Study About Festivals and Drug Use Is Bullshit (But the Media Still Bought It)

Bad science and shady motives are behind a study that perpetuates age-old stereotypes about festivals and drugs.
May 21, 2015, 5:35pm
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that some festival-goers do drugs. On any given Thursday during the neverending festival season, there are people the world over planning their trips and rolls for that coming weekend. As festivals have become the cornerstone of the exploding global dance music market, drugs have been the silent partner in the deal with big business. They're there, often tolerated and rarely talked about. But not acknowledging their presence has done little to diminish their appeal to those committed to a chemical high.

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So it was with some lascivious excitement that the music media embraced an infographic distributed earlier this month by a site called DrugAbuse.com called "Instagram, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll." The chart purported to show a correlation between substances ranging from alcohol to crack to mescaline and festivals from Burning Man to Glastonbury to a South Florida country music festival called the Chili Cookoff based on a culling of data from public Instagram posts using the social photo service's API. Billboard was given a first look at a series of illustrations from the researchers and other outlets and music blogs picked it up. Stories appeared on sites like Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan, Consequence of Sound, YourEDM, and Alternative Press (even our friends at THUMP UK got in on the action), each heralding a relationship between drug use and music festivals.

Photo courtesy of DrugAbuse.com

The infographic was created by scraping Instagram for mentions of festivals in combination of one or more of a drug-related word or phrase. Some of those words were obviously substance-specific like "marijuana" or "cocaine." Others were more vague, like "white girl" or "blow." One of the report's authors, Michael Genevieve, tells THUMP the study was conducted with the intention of "[raising] enough awareness to scare readers into a sober festival experience, in fear of being arrested."

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Ingmar Gorman, a drug researcher and therapist not affiliated with the study, finds that philosophy problematic. "It's a strong example of the moralistic approach to treating issues related to substance use over the past 50 years," he explains. "It's true that there are very serious risks associated with using substances at festivals. Substance abuse in general is a serious issue that is markedly under-treated and demands greater attention. However, substance abuse is defined by the inability to use discriminately, contextually, and volitionally. Specifically, substance abuse is the use of substances in contexts that render it maladaptive."

In short, simply consuming alcohol or weed does not define abuse or even risk. While a sober festival experience might be the right choice for some, for many, use does not equal abuse. Still, that's not the only problem with the study.

Photo courtesy of DrugAbuse.com

Our investigation showed that this intentionally-opaque study was conducted and assembled by a Florida-based content marketing agency Fractl, which works regularly with DrugAbuse.com. While at first glance the site appears to be a credible resource for those struggling with addiction and abuse issues, it's actually a redirect for for-profit rehab and addiction centers, mainly ones that bankrolls the site. It offers nominal and hard-to-find linkouts to free treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous while prominently and sensationally demonizing celebrities who struggled with addiction in an on-site section called "Famous Drug Abusers." In the "most abused substances" section on its homepage, it gives equal weight to heroin, poppers, and weed but alcohol is not mentioned. A toll-free number puts you in direct contact with a "rehab admissions specialist" who is under-informed at best about how your health plan will coverage potential treatment. In fine print around the site is a message that says "Sponsored by Ocean Breeze."

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While it appears Ocean Breeze is a reputable treatment center (and not affiliated with the Scientology-linked Gulf Breeze rehab facility, also in Florida), it is a business with the intention of making money by treating people suffering from addiction. As Stefanie Jones of the non-profit group Drug Policy Alliancepoints out, "certainly, it's fine [for a study] to have a motive, but it strikes me as borderline unethical not to make that clearer when you publish."

Photo courtesy of DrugAbuse.com

Furthermore, social media mentions do not correlate with use. As Jones points out, "you can't even really connect them with the event itself. Someone could be making references to a festival and a drug having never attended."

"It is unfair and misleading for this 'study' or anyone reporting on it to suggest [there is correlation]," Jones continues. "At best, this social media analysis may have something interesting to say about how comfortable people are talking about certain drugs. For example, alcohol was the highest among all substances listed, but the data is not oriented to answer those questions. It merely uncritically tallies drug mentions without diving into context. It's bad science, and it's promoting an unfair and inaccurate view of the festivals mentioned and the people who attend them."

"How did the researchers exclude false-positives?" Gorman asks, expounding on the critique of the study's less-than-scientific methods. "Burning Man was listed as the top festival associated with 'Crack Cocaine' with 3.85%. But the other two festivals had only 0.12% fewer mentions. The issue is that we don't know if these percentages deviate from what would be expected in the sample they collected. In other words, although the percentages vary by festival, we don't know if these are meaningful differences or just noise."

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Genevieve acknowledges that the methodology is imperfect, saying that the hope was that false positives would "average out." However, this means that there was no distinction between a post that mentioned "crack" as in freebase cocaine or "crack up," as in "to laugh." Similarly, there was no way to distinguish between "white girl" as cocaine slang or as part of "white girl wasted" (wasted was not a search term in this study).

"It is hard to get a sense of what people are actually taking at events unless we hit the ground floor and do some investigative work," Genevieve says (adding that this might be a task for THUMP). Still, he stands by the results as "accurately portraying the types of substances you would find at each of these events."

While Billboard only published one of the study's seven infographics, the other six have since been released to other publications and the study's authors have also updated their site to better explain their methodology, including a list of all search terms. That still doesn't clear everything up. "Without access to their methods or their data, we can't even be sure of the authenticity of these numbers," Gorman says. "The media is complicit here, by drawing unfounded conclusions and not investigating the source or the motivation behind the creation of the infographic."

Had any of this information about false correlatives, methodology, or motivation been made clear from the beginning it might not have stopped most media outlets from covering this study and sharing its infographics. Festivals-as-drug-dens has been a go-to trope in the media for years, resurfacing whenever there's a drug-related fatality but rarely offering credible solutions for the problem—like harm reduction or repealing the Rave Act. A colorful chart to validate that stereotype was too alluring for most to resist sharing unchecked.

Read: "This Mom Is Still Fighting America's Drug Policy Nearly Two Years After Her Daughter's Death"

"Certainly there is an overlap between substance abuse and these events," Gorman concedes. "But when we consider the millennia-old relationship between intoxication, ritual, and celebration, the connection between these substances and festivals is far from abnormal."

Jones adds this: "Just because it's a visually pleasing infographic doesn't mean you should trust it."

Zel McCarthy is THUMP's editor-in-chief. He is on Twitter.