Facebook and Instagram Outlined the Steps They Have Taken to Prevent Drug Sales

Monika Bickert responded to a story from The Washington Post

Terms associated with drug sales are blocked from being suggested in Instagram search
MachineHeadz/iStock

Facebook vice president of global policy management Monika Bickert responded to a story by Elizabeth Dwoskin for The Washington Post detailing the prevalence of illegal drug sales on Instagram.

Dwoskin wrote that searching the Facebook-owned photo- and video-sharing network for hashtags such as #oxy, #percocet, #painkillers, #painpills, #oxycontin, #adderall and #painrelief surfaced “thousands of posts by a mash-up of people grappling with addiction, those bragging about their party­going lifestyle and enticements from drug dealers.”

She added that following the accounts of those dealers, or even liking a post from one of their accounts, spurred Instagram’s algorithm to serve more drug-related posts, and even to suggest new hashtags to follow, such as #xansforsale.

In addition, Dwoskin pointed out that ads from large brands such as Target, Chase and Procter & Gamble appeared alongside those posts selling illegal drugs.

Bickert wrote in a Newsroom post, “An important thing to note is that The Washington Post’s story is based on findings from a research company called GIPEC—findings that we think are misleading. GIPEC created an artificial Instagram feed by following only objectionable content and some brand accounts. And while the fact that they were able to create it in the first place shows we still have work to do, this kind of manufactured feed is not a real representation of what most people see on Instagram.”

She also stressed that Facebook and Instagram know that advertisers do not want their ads to appear alongside this type of content.

And she outlined steps that Facebook and Instagram have taken thus far to prevent this type of content from spreading on the platform:

  • Terms associated with drug sales are blocked from being suggested in search, and discovery of related hashtags is limited by blocking the remainder when a user begins to type the hashtag.
  • The process of flagging questionable accounts or content has been made easier for users, and Bickert said all but one of the accounts revealed by the Post were disabled within two days of creation.
  • Instagram has been proactively investigating profiles, pages, groups, hashtags and accounts associated with content that it has already removed.
  • Addiction treatment services that want to advertise on Instagram must be certified.
  • The company has been working with outside organizations and experts, such as the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies and LegitScript, to remain up to date on information such as the latest street names for drugs.
  • Instagram has been developing new technology to proactively identify attempts to sell drugs via its network, such as the ability to understand text that appears in images.
  • Finally, the company is working with the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration to provide addiction support in cases where people seek help or drugs on Facebook or Instagram, as well as with law enforcement and/or emergency responders in cases where “someone may be at serious risk of harm.”

Bickert wrote, “I joined Facebook after a career as a prosecutor and saw firsthand the damage these drugs can inflict on communities and families. So, let me start with the obvious: There is no place for this on our services. It’s bad for society, bad for people and against our values.”