TTP Report Update: Instagram’s Drug Pipeline for Teens
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 17, 2022
Contact: Michael Clauw, email@example.com, 202.780.5750
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group that runs the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), released an update to a December 2021 TTP report showing that Instagram still makes it extremely easy for teens to find illicit drugs for sale—with the platform’s algorithms often leading the way. When confronted with TTP’s original findings during his Senate testimony in December, Instagram head Adam Mosseri assured lawmakers that “Accounts selling drugs, or any other unregulated goods are not allowed on the platform.” Yet, this spot check conducted five months later found the platform still rife with accounts offering to sell pharmaceuticals and other drugs to teens.
Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said, “Teen access to illegal and illicit drugs is too serious an issue to simply take a top executive at his word that they have everything under control. Policy assurances like this are effectively useless if there is not thorough enforcement to back them up. When it comes to stopping the sale of drugs on Instagram, we’ve continuously found that enforcement to be dangerously insufficient.”
TTP’s new report found Instagram taking modest steps in the form of warning labels and selective hashtag blocking, but it has failed to remove the actual accounts promoting drugs. For example, when our teen user searched for the word “xanax,” a warning appeared, stating, “This May Be Associated with the Sale of Drugs.” Despite the warning, however, the search still served up a slew of drug dealing accounts, including some blatantly offering “xanax for sale.”
There were also instances when Instagram blocked a drug-related hashtag while suggesting alternatives to our teen users. For example, when a teen user searched for #opiates, Instagram returned no direct results—but suggested other hashtags like #opiatesforsale.
Even when the platform didn’t suggest alternatives, variants were easy to find. In another example, the platform blocked the hashtag #fentanyl, but this was easily circumvented by adding another word to the hashtag, like #fentanylcalifornia, which surfaced posts by dealers selling the drug and carried no warning label.
TTP also found discrepancies in the way Instagram applied safety features on the web versus the mobile app. For example, when our teen account searched for the hashtag #xanax in the Instagram web app, it got no results at all. But the same #xanax search on the mobile app produced several Xanax sellers under the “Accounts” tab.
Ms. Kuppersmith continued, “To pretend that a warning label will stop even a single teen set on using Instagram as a directory for drug dealers from doing so is ludicrous. No matter how many layers of caution tape Instagram slaps over its platform for teens to cut through, its use as a marketplace for illegal drugs will persist so long as it fails to effectively remove the accounts selling them.”
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.