At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, touted her company’s potential to help people addicted to opioids.
“We have seen social media be a tremendous place of support for those thinking of harming themselves or struggling with opioid addiction,” she said. “We’re exploring and developing ways of linking people up with resources. We’re doing that for opiate addiction, for thoughts of self-harm, people asking or searching for hateful content. We do think this can be a positive thing for overall wellness.”
Yet even as Bickert addressed the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, popular Instagram tags related to opioid abuse and recovery remained an easy portal for users of Facebook’s image-sharing service to find those very drugs.
Dozens of top posts under the #opioidcrisis and #opioidaddiction hashtags contained comments touting Oxycontin, Percocet, Codeine, and other prescription opioids — along with phone numbers and usernames for encrypted messaging accounts. A typical entry, under a video describing tens of thousands of deaths by drug overdose, offered "fast deals" on "Oxys, Roxy, Xans, Addy, codeine, perc...Available 24.7 for delivery."
"We do not allow the sale of illegal drugs on Instagram," a Facebook spokesperson wrote in a comment to BuzzFeed News. "It is against our policies to buy, sell or trade non-medical or pharmaceutical drugs on our platform — including in comments. Inappropriate comments can and should be reported, and will be reviewed like posts or stories."
Social media’s role in boosting the American opioid crisis, and the way dealers have used Instagram to connect with buyers, have long been known. Last year, the Washington Post described the service as “a sizable open marketplace for advertising illegal drugs.” Instagram responded by cracking down on the drug-specific hashtags where many of these offers once lived.
Now, though, as Facebook strives to highlight the way its services can connect addicts with recovery communities, these hubs are also valuable real estate for dealers. It’s a significant oversight for the company, which is trying to show it can deal with the problem of drugs on its platforms to discourage legislation that would increase its liability for hosting such content.
Eileen Carey, an activist and former tech industry executive who for years has kept a record of drug sales on social platforms, told BuzzFeed News that she approached Bickert after the hearing and showed her the comments.
“She thanked me for flagging,” Carey said. A day later, however, the hashtag-located opioid markets remained open for business.