Anti-narcotics moderation: the difficulties of drug use prevention on social media

8 minutes
Anti-narcotics moderation: the difficulties of drug use prevention on social media
"Psychedelic mobile phone with data and pills background", performed by DreamStudio.

A few weeks ago, when President Gustavo Petro put fentanyl back on the public agenda in Colombia, the Échele Cabeza project - a benchmark in the reduction of risks associated with substance use - attempted to make a broadcast on Instagram to address the issue and debunk myths. However, as a restriction for alleged breaches of its content standards, the platform prevented it from addressing its audience, which today totals more than 200,000 followers, live.

The case is just a sample of the challenges faced by journalistic projects, organizations and activists who, through social media, seek to inform about the consumption of psychoactive substances from a scientific and preventive approach.

Echoing international anti-drug policy, platforms have rules to avoid becoming a means for trafficking or promoting illicit substances, as is the case with other regulated goods such as weapons, wildlife or medicines.

With the advancement of discussions on substance use, other social media have nuanced their policies. Following a decision by the Oversight Board in December, Meta changed its rules to allow content that discusses the legality and scientific qualities of entheogens, a category that includes certain psychoactive substances. In addition, it was recently reaffirmed that the promotion of other types of drugs, such as ketamine, is permitted on Meta platforms when administered in a medical context.

In the case of TikTok, the rules raise awareness about substance use and advocate for drug policy reform. Twitter, meanwhile, has less developed rules, but was the first platform to endorse recreational cannabis and marijuana use accessories.

Despite these exceptions, informative or preventative speeches are not fully covered by the rules. This, together with possible flaws in moderation systems, exposes content creators to sanctions that in turn limit public debate online.

Added to this is the lack of clarity in the processes, since the platforms do not always notify the reasons for a sanction or do not respond to appeals. For Échele Cabeza, recent changes in Meta have worsened the scenario, since they do not know how many infractions they have committed because they are not notified. As the company uses a system of strikes, in which progressive sanctions are applied according to the accumulation of faults, with each new publication the project risks its presence on Instagram, its main channel of diffusion.

This type of situation has also been faced by Proyecto Soma, a Peruvian organization dedicated to information, education and the necessary care in a world with drugs. On two occasions Instagram has suspended their account. The first time, in August last year, the platform told them that they had breached the regulated goods policy. The sanction coincided with one of their publications with the greatest reach: a video in which they responded to accusations against them made on a television program. Upon appeal, Instagram assured that it had been a mistake and reinstated the account.

In June of this year, shortly after publishing a call for volunteers, the platform suspended the account again for allegedly violating the spam policy. On that occasion, the sanction was reversed as soon as they started the review process. "We are aware that the life of everything published on social media ends up depending on these companies and not on those who generate that content, but for the same delicate reason we believe that there should be better communication," they say.

Talking about drugs on social media often involves a more subtle sanction: shadowbanning, that is, the reduction of the reach of content without a concrete explanation. This has happened to both Échele Cabeza and Mínima Dosis, a journalistic platform on drugs. This kind of digital exclusion was so severe for Mínima Dosis that for a while its account did not appear on Instagram even if you searched with the exact name.

Faced with this scenario, organizations have opted to change their content and use strategies to evade detection systems. According to Oswaldo Beltrán, director of Mínima Dosis, shadowban on Instagram managed to overcome by modifying the texts of each of its publications and replacing them with combinations such as "L$D" or "dr0gas". Although there is insufficient information on the platforms' criteria, DoubleBlind, a media outlet specializing in drug coverage, published in August a guide with similar tips to avoid sanctions on Instagram and react in case they occur.

For Beltrán, an additional problem is added to online drug conversations. The boom in the therapeutic use of some psychedelic substances has been accompanied by a proliferation of accounts that promote supposed treatments and spiritual retreats without control: a new challenge of medical disinformation that develops in parallel to the effects of discourses that pretend to reduce risks and offer scientific information.

Similarly, while these conversations are limited, drug trafficking through social media has been increasing, as a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warned earlier this year. In addition, another report by the same agency for Latin America and the Caribbean noted that organized criminal groups were using platforms to offer synthetic drugs in the region, a situation which, according to the document, is probably influenced by the low detection rate of such content and the limited capacity of the authorities to investigate and prosecute cybercrime.

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