One Woman Got Facebook to Police Opioid Sales On Instagram

Eileen Carey says she has regularly reported Instagram accounts selling opioids to the company for three years, with few results. Last week, Carey confronted two executives of Facebook, which owns Instagram, about the issue on Twitter. Since then, Instagram removed some accounts, banned one opioid-related hashtag and restricted the results for others.

Searches for the hashtag #oxycontin on Instagram now show no results. Other opioid-related hashtags, such as #opiates, #fentanyl, and #narcos, surface a limited number of results along with a message stating, “Recent posts from [the hashtag] are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” Some accounts that appeared to be selling opioids on Instagram also were removed.

The moves come amid increased government concern about the role of tech platforms in opioid abuse, and follow years of media reports about the illegal sale of opioids on Instagram and Facebook, from the BBC, Venturebeat, CNBC, Sky News and others. Following the BBC probe in 2013, Instagram blocked searches of terms associated with the sale of illegal drugs.

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Instagram now hides many results for opioid-related hashtags, including #fentanyl.



On Wednesday, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb criticized social-media companies, including Facebook and Instagram, for not doing enough to police illegal activity.
“I know that internet firms are reluctant to cross a threshold, where they could find themselves taking on a broader policing role,” he said. “But these are insidious threats being propagated on these web platforms.”

Gottlieb contrasted the tech industry’s inaction on opiates to the sale of child pornography, where internet providers and social media “stepped in to crack down on illegal activities when they’ve been forced,” he said.

The FDA plans a summit this summer with tech CEOs, academics, and advocates to discuss solutions, such as “altering search algorithms” to inform potential buyers about health risks and effective treatment programs, Gottlieb said.

In February, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Pinterest, urging them to reduce illegal online drug sales and advertising.

Libby Baney, executive director of the Alliance of Safe Online Pharmacies, a nonprofit group supported by pharmaceutical manufacturers that works to halt illegal online drug sales, agrees with Gottlieb. When she has raised concerns about content related to opiods with a tech-industry trade group, Baney says representatives are willing to discuss ads, but not user-generated content. “The holy grail, or maybe in this case the third rail, is: ‘We don’t touch the algorithm. We only talk about ads.’ So to have the commissioner say the word ‘algorithm’ is monumental,” Baney says.

“It shouldn’t take this much effort to get people to realize that you have some responsibility for the stuff on your platform,” Baney says. “A 13 year old could do this search and realize there’s bad stuff on your platform — and probably has — you don’t need the commissioner of the FDA to tell you that. It’s great that he did, but it shouldn’t have gotten to this point.”

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