Last year, the US government celebrated the takedown of darknet (the underground and far less traceable version of the web) drug sales site AlphaBay. It was an effort the FBI described as "one of the most sophisticated and coordinated efforts to date on the part of law enforcement across the globe." Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pledged to include concentrated efforts related to online drug sales in his controversial, renewed war on drugs. But online drug sales are now springing up in a much less covert, and far more surprising, forum: Facebook.
Facebook has clear policies against drug sales conducted over its platform. As stated in its Community Standards, "we prohibit attempts by individuals, manufacturers, and retailers to purchase, sell, or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs, and marijuana." This means that users can potentially report these accounts when they come across them, but it doesn't stop them from being created in the first place. And even short-lived profiles can have detrimental outcomes for Facebook users.
Facebook hosts a number of recovery-centered groups where people with substance use disorders can seek advice or speak with others going through addiction recovery. Community support has been a long-time cornerstone of recovery, but these online groups play an especially important role in the lives of methadone and buprenorphine patients. Often excluded from 12-step meetings due to pseudo-official policies against the role of medication-assisted treatment in sobriety, these medication-specific recovery groups allow this stigmatized population to access support and community.
Social media is an invaluable resource for people hoping to connect with others who share a similar interest that they may not feel comfortable discussing in their physical lives, says Karen North, director of the University of South California Annenberg's digital social media program. "People who are struggling with addiction may not want to discuss that with colleagues at work or classmates at school, but they do want to and need to find support for that. The internet allows them to find a committed, caring, empathic community."
Unfortunately, it also makes them a target for Facebook drug sellers.
Brandon Hicks, of Ashland, Kentucky, joined several methadone patient support groups on Facebook shortly after enrolling in treatment in late March. He says the strange friend requests and messages began almost immediately. He shared a screenshot of a profile that would disappear within the week, telling me that this was just the most recent of several similar accounts soliciting him.
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In the screenshot, the profile picture is a large baggie of what appears to be Xanax, and the cover photo shows a bag spilling boxes of various medications. Other photos on this profile display a variety of blister packs and pill boxes, some labeled "diazepam," with a note tucked into them. Scrawled across the note in red pen is a phone number. There are two versions of this display; one with the year "2018" written above the number, and the other labeled "2017." When I contacted the owner of the number, he called himself a "businessman who deals with meds," claiming his "business account" had been deleted by his son.
Hicks says these targeted marketing attempts haven't negatively impacted his recovery, which was motivated by three overdoses that he experienced in one week shortly before beginning treatment in March. Still, he thinks they shouldn't be on Facebook and has tried reporting as many of them as possible—but says he never heard back from Facebook about the reports.
When I reached out, a representative from Facebook was not able to comment on the specific reports, but explains that content violations are sometimes not immediately caught depending on the way the report is filed. For example, a photo of pills doesn't necessarily violate the Facebook community standards, so if that photo were reported, it would go unchecked. An account soliciting drug sales through messenger, however, should be taken down.
When posing as a potential customer for one of these accounts, I experienced their aggressive marketing tactics, which appear to include multiple short-lived accounts that are used to share personal phone numbers with possible clients. A now-defunct profile named "Chad Bacon" told me through Messenger that he would only send his menu over text message. Once he had my phone number, I got the menu, which included everything from Xanax to fentanyl to quaaludes at discount, bulk prices. I also began receiving near-daily phone calls, unsolicited pill pics, and screenshots of messages from people with suspiciously alliterative names claiming to be overjoyed at the prompt receipt of their orders.
Heather Waters, of Danville, Kentucky, is a moderator in the public group Faces of Opioids and dedicated to the memorialization of those whose lives were lost to addiction. She tells me about a conversation she had with a pill-sales profile nearly identical to the one I spoke with. She says he wanted her to pay him for percocets through MoneyGram. Although she says she and others from the same group reported this profile, it was not deleted until after I contacted the Facebook PR department about it on June 18.
"I knew it was a scam from the get-go," Waters says—which is a distinct possibility. A more frightening scenario is that the pills that arrive in a buyer's mailbox are not what he believes them to be, and could be something much more dangerous. When he thought I was a potential customer, "Bacon" admitted on Facebook messenger that his Xanax bars were actually pressed, which means he was mixing alprazolam (or whatever he wanted) with a binding material and using a pill press to mimic brand-name Xanax. None of the sources I spoke with actually went through with the orders—but whether these profiles are actually dealing the drugs in their photos, or simply pulling the latest internet money scam, they are using a platform intended for social connection to target, and potentially trigger, an especially vulnerable population.
North is concerned that these apparent attempts at selling drugs to vulnerable groups may be "just the tip of the iceberg." Referencing the Cambridge-Analytica election scandal that broke earlier this year, in which Facebook was also a central player, she says that "professionals have become extremely good at creating content in a way that exploits what they know about the targeted audience." She suggests that group admins and others with positions of power within the platform inform users in advance about these predatory behaviors, so that when they receive these types of friend requests and messages, users in recovery are already impressed with the notion that it's harmful, targeted behavior. "It's like a psychological inoculation," she adds.
The Facebook rep I spoke to says they are not ignorant of the problem, and that while they do not currently have a way to prevent users from creating these types of profiles, they are working on developing strategies to predict their predatory behaviors. On June 19, they rolled out a new feature that directs users searching for opioids or addiction resources to the SAMHSA National Helpline.
In the meantime, moderators from Faces of Opioids and other groups continue to combat the onslaught of these recurring predatory profiles, concerned that these offers for drugs could jeopardize their community members’ recovery, or trigger the grieving parents who regularly post photos and memorials of the children they lost to addiction.
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