Drug dealers are turning to Facebook and other popular social media sites to peddle steroids, raising more questions about whether the companies are properly policing their platforms.
Those substances, which are illegal without a prescription, are being aggressively sold or marketed through posts and videos on sites including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, according to new research by Internet safety nonprofit Digital Citizens Alliance and cyberintelligence firm GiPEC. During the first half of the year, the researchers say they found more than 100 examples of such pages or posts.
Even as recently as this week, more than a dozen Facebook pages, YouTube videos and an Instagram account were selling or promoting prescription steroid and appearance enhancing drugs were still live on the platforms. After a Washington Post inquiry, the social media companies removed the pages and posts violating their terms of service, which prohibit illegal drug sales.
The posts turn devices into drug dealers, said Tom Galvin, Digital Citizens Alliance executive director. “Parents should know that,” he said. Their kids are “gaining access to this online on sites that are mainstream.”
The sale of these types of drugs is just the latest example of harmful and illicit content proliferating on social networks, turning the platforms into potentially dangerous places for users. Disinformation, hate speech and illegal sales continue to plague the sites, despite efforts to better moderate content both with thousands of humans and improved algorithms.
Amazon and Google recently were selling firearm and gun accessories on their sites in apparent violation of their own policies. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter played Whac-A-Mole after the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, when the shooter’s video surfaced and proliferated across the Web. And Twitter, Facebook and YouTube recently said they removed hundreds of accounts that appeared to be a concerted Chinese effort at spreading political discord regarding protests in Hong Kong.
That has led some industry critics to question whether the companies are doing enough.
“The model of moderation that platforms use is structurally inadequate to the task,” said Roger McNamee, a Facebook investor who has become one of the most prominent critics of Big Tech. “It appears that the moderation is not actually designed to eliminate those things, it’s designed to eliminate the political blowback.”
Facebook said it removes content that violates its policies as it finds them. “Our Community Standards make it very clear that buying, selling or trading drugs, which include steroids, is not allowed anywhere on Pages, in advertising, or anywhere else on Facebook,” said Facebook spokeswoman Crystal Davis.
YouTube said it removed 90,000 videos for violating its “harmful or dangerous policy” in the second quarter of 2019, and the company works closely with experts including emergency room doctors and pediatricians to develop its policies. “We’ve been investing in the policies, resources and products needed to live up to our responsibility and protect the YouTube community from harmful content,” YouTube spokesman Farshad Shadloo said.
Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough pointed to the company’s existing policies, which state Twitter can’t be used for “any unlawful purpose or in furtherance of illegal activities.”
Steroids have previously surfaced as a social media problem. Digital Citizens Alliance first researched the issue in 2013, finding that the steroids were being sold on YouTube. Immediately following the report, it appeared the company cracked down. (DCA receives funding from telecommunications, pharmaceutical and tech organizations, as well as some members of the Motion Picture Association of America.)
YouTube said it’s taken a number of steps to reduce the spread of “borderline content and videos” on its site in recent years.
The researchers, including Eric Feinberg, the chief executive of New York-based GiPEC, decided to revisit the topic after noticing last year that steroids continued to be sold on the platforms. “They continue to turn a blind eye,” he said.