June 03, 2021 Teri Sforza, The Orange County Register
(TNS) — The Instagram accounts belonged to "fentanyl_top" and "mass_chemical_drugs" — the 21st century cyber street corners teens visit when looking for an escape, a high, a party.
Amy Neville found those via her smart, curious, 14-year-old son Alex's account after his death. He bought what he thought was oxycontin from an online dealer and died in his Aliso Viejo bedroom after ingesting what turned out to be fentanyl — a cheap synthetic opioid up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
The grief-stricken Neville reported the accounts to Instagram — and was stunned when they weren't immediately removed. They "likely" didn't go against Instagram's community guidelines, automated responses said.
It has been nearly a year since Alex died, Today, those particular accounts have vanished. But dozens more like them have popped up on Instagram, on Snapchat and on other social media sites, with names riffing on fentanyl, oxycontin and all manner of illegal drugs — just a click or two away.
"These social media sites are the kids' playground. We have to make the playground safe," said Neville. "In the ideal world, the platforms would find these accounts and shut them down. If it's illegal offline, it needs to be illegal online. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but when there's billions and billions of dollars at stake, I guess things are different.
"We need to do something," she said. "People are dying every single day."
On Friday, June 4, protesters demanding that social media giants do more to curb deadly drug sales on their platforms will gather at the Santa Monica headquarters of Snapchat, at the Chinese Pavilion in downtown Riverside and at more than 30 cities across the nation, from Oregon to Ohio and New York to Florida.
It's the work of volunteers and more than 40 parent-driven nonprofits like the Alexander Neville Foundation and the Association of People Against Lethal Drugs, many of whom are working to stiffen criminal penalties for peddling fentanyl. These are poisoning deaths, not drug overdoses, they say, and need to be treated that way.
"My sister was 20 years old. She died Nov. 7, 2020, after taking a quarter of what she thought was a Xanax, but turned out to be pure fentanyl," said Victoria Antunez of Riverside.
"People are getting away with selling these deadly pills, and getting away with it because there is no law in California yet. We have to shift people's ways of thinking and the stigma on death and drugs. It is fentanyl poisoning, not overdose, because each one of the people that we are representing during this rally was blindsided into thinking they were taking something which would've been harmless, but because of the fentanyl, they ended up dying."
Antunez's sister, Athena Zepeda, was herself an Instagram influencer and an MMA fighter. "Never spoke a bad word about anybody, was always the life of the party and the go-to person for anything," Antunez said. "We miss her so much."
Before Athena's death, the family knew nothing about fentanyl, Antunez said. Now, they've connected with more than 100 families in the Riverside area whose lives have been affected by it.
"It is truly an epidemic!" she said.
In February, relationship therapist and TV host Laura Berman's 16-year-old son Samuel died in his room after taking what was supposed to be Xanax or Percocet, bought from someone he connected with on Snapchat. "My beautiful boy is gone," she tweeted. "My heart is completely shattered and I am not sure how to keep breathing."
The list of arrests tied to drug sales on social media is long, including "dealers" busted in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and here in California. Dealers connecting with teens on social media has been documented in countries around the globe.
Media giants say they've stepped up their games — and will be doing more.
"For us, nothing is more important than the safety of Snapchatters and we strictly prohibit using Snapchat for drug transactions," said a company spokesperson by email.
"Drug-related content and activity is firmly against our community guidelines, we aggressively enforce against these violations, and support law enforcement investigations. We try to be as proactive as possible in detecting, preventing and acting on this type of abuse, and are constantly improving our own technology and tools to fight drug dealers and illegal drugs.
"We are also working with parents and safety experts on efforts to raise awareness with Snapchatters about the dangers of fentanyl and other illegal drugs."
The company said it's working with experts to further improve its work, including getting regular updates on new terminology, symbols and emojis used to represent and promote drugs; using machine learning tools to improve its ability to find and stop drug transactions; and partnering with dozens of non-profits and "safety partners" in its "Trusted Flagger Program," which provides them a secure way to report content that violates guidelines and expedites critical safety issues.
Snapchat recently rolled out a new feature, "Friend Check Up," reminding Snapchatters to review their friend list to make sure they actually know their contacts, and the company also works with law enforcement to support investigations and can preserve relevant content, the spokesperson said.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, echoed Snapchat.
"We do not allow the sale of illicit drugs on Instagram. It is against our policies to buy, sell or trade non-medical or pharmaceutical drugs on our platform," a spokesperson said by email.
"We have been focusing on this area for some time, and we are working hard to ensure we keep illicit drug sales off Instagram, while surfacing the communities of support that help those struggling with addiction. We know we have more to do in this area, but we will continue to work with experts and invest in people and technology to keep our community safe."
Instagram will continue investing in technology to keep illicit drug sales off the platform and connect people with help and resources, the company said. That includes "proactive detection" — tools that can spot images of drugs and signals of intent to sell, such as the posting of phone numbers, prices and user names for other social media accounts.
It also launched a "Get Help Feature," directing people attempting to purchase illegal substances to the SAMHSA national helpline. But addiction is an issue that affects families throughout the nation and world; no company or government organization can address it alone; and bad actors continually update their tactics and terminology to avoid detection, the company said.
Some 90,000 people died of drug overdoses in the 12 months that ended in October, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — a spike of 30% in a single year, and the highest tally ever.
Officials say that's because cheap fentanyl is being dressed up to look like real pharmaceuticals — and is killing people.
Berman has been using her platform to push for a law creating "drug-induced homicide," which was tabled this year, and to push social media companies to allow parents to track their children's accounts.
"Currently, #TikTok and #Snapchat do not allow parents to protect their kids on their apps, because they prevent parents from using third-party software to monitor when their child is exposed to dangerous content," Berman tweeted on June 1.
"These apps are essential to help protect our children.... We have a real opportunity to make the world a safer place for this next generation."
Parents and kids need to understand that fentanyl is out there, in everything, and that a single pill can kill, said Neville, Alex's mom.
"This is shaping up to be our deadliest summer," she said. "I know we're not going to shut down Snapchat on June 4. But it's important that Snapchat hear from those of us who have wanted to get loud for a while."
© 2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.