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Snapchat boosts efforts to root out drug dealers

Oct. 7, 2021, 6:00 AM EDT

Snapchat is rolling out new policies to help address the fentanyl crisis.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

Snapchat has developed new tools and educational content to crack down on the sale of deadly counterfeit pills on the messaging app. These tools aim to warn users about the dangers of those pills in an effort to keep its community safe from the “devastating impacts of the fentanyl crisis,” the company announced Thursday.

The company said it has improved the automated systems it uses to detect the sale of illegal drugs on the app, hired more people to respond to law enforcement requests for data during criminal investigations and developed an in-app education portal called Heads Up focused on the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills.

Counterfeit prescription pills that look just like legitimate medications, such as Percocet, OxyContin or Xanax, but actually contain a deadly dose of potent synthetic opioid fentanyl have been linked to a wave of deaths in the United States over the last few years. These pills are widely available on social media platforms including Snapchat, and 2 in 5 of those seized and tested in the United States contain enough fentanyl to kill, according to a warning issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration last month.

“We have heard devastating stories from families impacted by this crisis, including cases where fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills were purchased from drug dealers on Snapchat,” said Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, in a blog post. “We are determined to remove illegal drug sales from our platform.”

The announcement comes less than one week after NBC News profiled eight parents whose children had died after taking a single fentanyl-laced pill purchased on Snapchat.

On Sept. 27, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said social media companies were not doing enough to stop the sale of counterfeit pills on their platforms.

“They need to understand that Americans are dying. They are dying at record rates,” she said in an interview with Kate Snow on NBC’s “TODAY” show. “And they need to be a partner in stopping it.”

Snap said improvements to its proactive detection tools — which use artificial intelligence to identify pictures, words and emojis related to drug sales — have allowed the company to increase the number of accounts removed by 112% during the first half of 2021.

For the last six months, it has also been using intelligence from public health data company S-3, which scours the internet for drug sellers, to identify Snapchat accounts that are potentially violating the rules. S-3 does not search directly on Snapchat, but instead looks for dealers elsewhere — on other social media sites or the dark web — who reference a Snapchat account in their advertisements.

“Most drug dealers are multiplatform marketers,” Tim Mackey, founder of S-3, said. “Snapchat is a popular modality for marketing, engagement and building a customer list.”

Users who search on Snapchat for certain drug terms or for help with substance abuse will now be directed to the Heads Up in-app education portal, which includes content from advocacy groups like Song for Charlie, a nonprofit organization founded by Ed and Mary Ternan after their 22-year-old son died from an illicit "fentapill" in May 2020. The Ternans have been some of the leading voices educating social media companies like Snap about how they could better protect their users and have developed a public service campaign targeting kids and their parents highlighting how just one pill can kill.

“We don’t have much legal recourse against the platforms, so shaking our fist at them was really futile,” Ed Ternan said. “Nothing we could do could bring Charlie back, so if we wanted to get results and not just vent, we needed to work with them.”

He added that now “the same features and market share that makes Snapchat so attractive to drug dealers we can use to warn the kids about the problem.”

Snap also commissioned research, which surveyed 1,449 Americans ages 13 to 24, to understand how young people view prescription drugs and fentanyl. The survey, carried out by market research firm Morning Consult, found that teenagers and young adults are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, and some are experimenting with prescription drugs as a coping mechanism.

Fifteen percent of respondents admitted to abusing prescription medications. One in five surveyed teenagers said they had thought about doing so, and 40 percent said they know a peer who has done so.

While 60 percent of those surveyed had heard of drug deaths related to fentanyl, only 27 percent of teens surveyed had heard of fentanyl being used to create counterfeit pills. As a group, they were far more likely to describe heroin and cocaine as “extremely dangerous” — 61 percent and 50 percent, respectively — than fentanyl (37 percent).

“This lack of awareness can have devastating consequences when just one counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl can kill,” Snap said.

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