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Sliding into Your DM: Drug D3alers

Social media’s in-built design features are helping drug dealers to expand and 'professionalize' their businesses. The ‘search bar’ function aids dealers identify customers, key hashtags assist posts getting a wider reach, dealers advertise their 'products' and availability through pictures and videos, and the ‘suggested friends’ tool allows dealers to be suggested to new potential buyers.

As of December 2020, one in four young people (24%) report that they see illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media – a significant figure considering how recent a phenomenon this is.

Of those who reported seeing illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media:

  • 56% saw drugs being advertised on Snapchat, 55% on Instagram and 47% on Facebook.

  • 63% saw Cannabis being advertised – making it the most commonly seen drug advertised for sale. Cocaine was the second drug most commonly seen advertised (26%), followed by MDMA/Ecstasy (24%), Xanax (20%), Nitrous Oxide (17%) and Codeine/Lean (16%).

  • 72% said that they see illegal drugs advertised for sale on social media sites or apps once a month or more.

  • 36% were not concerned by seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media. Worryingly, this percentage increased the younger the respondent. 33% aged 18+ were not concerned, but this jumped to 48% for under-18s.

These data indicate an association between frequency of social media utilization and the likelihood of viewing drugs advertised for sale online. The baseline of seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media is a whopping 24%. This increases to 29% of respondents who use social media every hour, compared to 14% of respondents who use social media once a day.

How social media platforms are used

The ethnographic trawl of Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram reveals how drugs are advertised and bought via social media platforms. Typically, dealers advertise their drugs by posting, videos, photos and statuses onto their social media feeds or ‘stories’ showing what drugs they have available, the price and quantity they are selling them for, and notifying users when they are open for business.

It was observed that buyers will then contact dealers by either commenting below their posts or contacting them in private via the platform’s direct messaging function or encrypted messaging sites, such as WhatsApp or proprietary social media chat (direct messaging). Drugs can be exchanged in person, either with the buyer going to meet the dealer or vice versa, or by postal delivery. The investigation reveals that online payment services such as PayPal is used if the drugs were delivered by post.

You can read the full Investigatory report here.

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