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Dealers Are Using Social Media to Sell Illegal Drugs — And Getting Away With It

A large portion of the illegal drug market has expanded into the world of social media, The Washington Post reports. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are struggling to shut down these illicit accounts, as drug-related hashtags drive users to them.

The social platforms can’t keep up with their own algorithms, which actively promote the problematic content once users express interest by following a drug dealer or liking a drug-related image, according to the report. The system is meant to advertise accounts and provide new content personalized to the user’s interests, but this can backfire when the interests are illegal.

“We’re not yet sophisticated enough to tease apart every post to see if it’s trying to sell someone illegal drugs or they are taking Xanax cause they are stressed out,” Facebook’s vice president for global marketing solutions told the Post of the company’s artificial intelligence technology. “Obviously, there is some stuff that gets through that is totally against our policy, and we’re getting better at it.”

Instagram has attempted blocking certain hashtags—like #fentanyl, #cocaine, and #heroin—from public search, but this doesn’t completely eliminate their use, and dealers simply use hashtags related to legal drugs to market. They’ve also attempted adding messages suggesting helplines when individuals search for illegal drugs, the Post reports, but the social platforms are facing pressure from Congress and activist groups to take more effective actions.