Snapchat to take action to counter drug dealing in app

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

On Oct. 7, 2021, Snapchat announced its initiative of developing educational content to counter the selling of deadly counterfeit pills on the app, leading users to speculate how changes will harm or benefit users.

With the influx of users on the platform, the popular social media company has begun to see significant increases in the sale of illegal and counterfeit pills amongst young teens and adults, resulting in concerns over Snapchat’s safety measures to prevent on-app sales of illegal medications.

The sale of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills sold through Snapchat have resulted in an increased number of deaths of young teens and adults in at least 15 states, causing users of the app to be concerned for the safety of younger users, according to NBC News.

“Social media is always going to be a blessing and a curse,” Heather Starr Fiedler, Chair of the Department of Community Engagement and Professor of Multimedia, said. “This is one of those cases in which social media has allowed for some of the proliferation of people to be able to use those networks to trick people into such things like selling illegal drugs.”

Currently, Snapchat accounts for over 280 million users as of 2021, 38% of which are located within the United States, according to the Business of Apps website.

“I feel Snapchat is a huge platform that is used for bad and illegal activities in the lives of some individuals,” Kate Pisani, an online student at SNHU said. “Social media should be used to connect with family members and friends to share life updates, not to impact younger generations’ mental and physical health.”

Counterfeit medications, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are “fake medications that may be harmful to your health,” resulting in serious medical crises or even death.

The Administrator for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Anne Milgram, said to NBC News on Sept. 27 that social media companies were not doing enough to stop the elicitation of these counterfeit medications on their platforms.

“They need to understand that Americans are dying,” Milgram said. “They are dying at record rates. They need to be partners to stop it.”

In 2020, CBS News reported that the United States saw the largest number of drug-related deaths within a single year, with opioids being responsible for 75% of overdose deaths, many of those opioids being laced with fentanyl.

Across the country, at least one in eight teenagers have abused illicit substances within the last year, with 43% of college students abusing illicit drugs, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics.

“Over time, the prevention has increased, but I feel that there should be more monitoring of this activity,” Pisani said. “More people need to be educated on what to look out for.”

Snapchat also commissioned its own survey with the market research firm Morning Consult to understand how users between the ages of 13 and 24 who use the app perceive prescription drugs and fentanyl.

Surveying over 1,449 American citizens, the study concluded that those with higher levels of anxiety used prescription drugs as a coping mechanism to ease stress, with 15% admitting to abusing prescription medications and 40% knowing someone who has.

“I believe people use this to cope because it takes their stress and pain away,” Alexus Metayer, a Sports Communication major at Point Park said. “They don’t care about anything at the moment, they just want to use it for relief.”

With the rise in drug-related sales on the platform, Snapchat announced their plans for developing an educational portal called Heads Up to direct users to health organizations content on drug-related keyword searches, according to CBS News.

The app’s company also said that it made “significant operational improvements” by increasing its enforcement rates by 112%, along with increases in proactive rates by 260%, which went into effect since the beginning of 2021.

“We are determined to remove illegal drug sales from our platform, and we have been investing in proactive detection and collaboration with law enforcement to hold drug dealers accountable for the harm they are causing our community,” Snapchat said in a statement reported from CBS News.

Although Snapchat is moving forward in developing educational tools for users, debate continues over what actions social media platforms should be taking to regulate content and whether or not big technology companies will or should be held responsible for the harmful communication on their platforms.

In 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled that big technology companies were not
required to censor online speech and the attempted censorship provision in the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional. The case, Reno v. ACLU (1997), stated that the restriction limited the freedom of speech, going against the First Amendment. However, this does not necessarily make Snapchat or similar companies immune from facing consequences for not regulating some content.

“Big tech companies like to pretend that they are like a phone company, where they just provide the line but do not pay attention to what is said on it,” Fielder said. “They proceed to claim that they are not responsible for what is sent on their platform. The government and those who possibly sue the tech companies, however, will say otherwise, saying that if there is something that is on the platform, the company should be held responsible.”

After the reports were released by NBC News pertaining to the deaths of the eight teenagers who purchased illicit drugs on the platform, it is unclear if any action will be taken towards the media platform on this issue.

“People use the app because it’s secretive,” Metayer said. “They use it more so they have a more low key way to communicate with people for these certain things.”

In part, Snapchat is still re-evaluating their methods and procedures to eliminate the rise in illicit drug sales over the popular medium.

“Part of the reason why they’ve [Snapchat] only taken the initiative now is because of the expose that was recently published in the news,” Fielder said. “Unfortunately, it takes being publicly called out before having these companies take action against these issues.”