October 12, 2023

Exposing the Social Media Drug Marketplace

Drug dealers are tapping into the vast reach of social media platforms, turning them into virtual narcotics marketplaces, reports show.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Julie Miller

Addiction & Mental Health Writer

Last Update on October 12, 2023

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Drug dealers are tapping into the vast reach of social media platforms, turning them into virtual narcotics marketplaces.

The problem is real and becoming surprisingly pervasive, putting teens and adults both young and old at risk. 

Here’s what you need to know about dealers selling drugs on social media. 

Unmasking Drug Deals on Social Apps

Drug dealers now boldly advertise narcotics like cocaine and MDMA on platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp.1

They showcase drug images, prices, and ordering details through anonymous profiles.

Shockingly, some even use Instagram’s sponsored posts to reach wider audiences, while others employ WhatsApp to broadcast their ‘menus.’


Rise in Digital-Era Drug Trade

Leading criminologist David Wilson suggests that the legal system is lagging and must adapt as crime evolves in this digital era.

Many dealers believe they’re beyond reach, especially given the low arrest rates for certain crimes.


Investigations and Anonymity

MailOnline investigations reveal numerous accounts displaying drugs, from marijuana to crystal meth.

Many profiles operate under fake names to maintain anonymity, linking to encrypted chat apps like Telegram for actual transactions.


Tech Company Responses

Instagram’s overseeing company, Meta, stressed its commitment to blocking drug-related content.

Between January and March, they reported removing over three million drug-linked posts.

Instagram attempts to ward off potential buyers by displaying warnings when users search drug-related terms.

However, sly dealers refer to drugs as ‘candy’ or other euphemisms to evade detection.


Risks and Public Concerns

Healthcare professionals warn of the immense risks.

Online drugs often contain hazardous substances like mercury or even rat poison.

There’s also concern about the authenticity of the sellers.

Thorrun Govind, an experienced healthcare lawyer, emphasized that tech companies must be more proactive, and parents must educate their children about the dangers.


Accountability and The Way Forward

Prof. Wilson stresses that social media platforms must accept responsibility and not rely solely on the police.

Instagram and others should ensure illicit advertisements aren’t permitted.

Official statements from both Meta2 and the Biden-Harris White House 3 emphasize their efforts to combat this issue.

selling drugs on social media

How Drug Dealers Exploit Paid Ads

Paid-for social media ads have transformed the advertising landscape, offering unprecedented targeting capabilities to businesses. These ads allow advertisers to reach specific demographics based on interests, browsing habits, geographic locations, and behavioral patterns. While legitimate businesses use these tools to tailor their marketing efforts effectively, they have also opened doors for illicit activities. Drug dealers, aiming to exploit these vast digital spaces, have learned to harness these ad tools for their nefarious ends.4 To sidestep platform regulations and law enforcement, dealers often disguise their illicit products as legitimate ads. This camouflage often involves coded language, suggestive imagery, and strategically ambiguous content. For example, drugs might be referred to using popular slang or euphemisms, presented as everyday products or services to the untrained eye. While evocative to those in the know, imagery is typically crafted to appear harmless or unrelated to drugs. Furthermore, dealers may use high user engagement strategies, such as polls, quizzes, or user-generated content, to create a facade of legitimacy and attract potential buyers. This blend of covert methods makes it challenging for platforms and authorities to identify and tackle these concealed drug advertisements effectively.

The Algorithm's Role

Algorithms, designed to curate and recommend content based on user interests and behaviors, play a significant role in what content appears on a user’s social media feed.

While these algorithms aim to enhance user experience by showcasing relevant content, they can inadvertently promote drug-related content.

For instance, if a user unknowingly interacts with disguised drug advertisements or content from related genres, the algorithm might interpret it as genuine interest and push similar content their way.

This can lead to a snowball effect where more and more drug-related or disguised content is recommended, broadening the reach of illicit ads.


The Challenge of Distinguishing Legitimacy

The inherent challenge lies in the algorithm’s inability to evaluate content morally; it simply operates based on user interaction patterns.

Distinguishing between legitimate and illicit ads becomes incredibly challenging when drug dealers employ tactics that mirror those of genuine advertisers.

If both legitimate and illicit content receive similar types of engagement, the algorithm struggles to differentiate between them, often resulting in the unintentional promotion of harmful content alongside genuine advertisements.

This highlights the need for more advanced detection methods and constant monitoring to ensure that the line between legitimate advertising and illicit promotion remains clear.

Countermeasures by Social Media Platforms

In response to the growing concern about illicit ads, primarily related to drugs, social media platforms have stepped up their game to identify and counteract these rogue advertisements.

One of the most prominent strategies employed is deploying advanced AI and machine learning models.

These models are trained using vast datasets to recognize patterns, coded language, and imagery associated with illicit activities.

Once trained, they can proactively scan and flag suspicious ads, sometimes even before they reach users’ feeds.

The advantage of machine learning is its ability to evolve constantly; as dealers develop new tactics, the models adapt by learning from new data.

Collaboration with Law Enforcement and Drug Prevention Agencies


Beyond technological solutions, platforms also understand the importance of human intervention and collaboration.

Teaming up with law enforcement and drug prevention agencies provides platforms with the necessary expertise and real-time intelligence to stay one step ahead.

This synergy facilitates a rapid response to emerging threats but also aids in creating awareness campaigns, equipping users with the knowledge to identify and report dubious content.

Through technology and collaboration, social media platforms are ardently working to create a safer digital space for all users.

Risks for Users and the Wider Public

The allure of easily accessible drugs on social media masks many risks for individual users and society. One of the most immediate dangers is the acquisition of unregulated substances. As with any black market, these drugs can often be adulterated with toxic or lethal agents, posing significant health threats to consumers. Additionally, the pervasive promotion and casual portrayal of drug usage on these platforms can lead to a normalization of drug culture. This desensitization, particularly among impressionable young users, might downplay drug use’s inherent dangers and consequences, potentially leading to increased consumption and experimentation.


Data Privacy Concerns

On a more covert level, there’s a looming danger concerning data privacy. Interactions with illicit vendors expose users to potential data breaches, where personal information can be harvested and misused. This can manifest in various forms, from users being tracked and blackmailed to falling victim to sophisticated scams.5 The digital drug bazaar not only poses immediate health risks but also carries with it deep-seated societal and privacy concerns.

Recommendations and Solutions

Combatting the nefarious use of social media for drug promotions demands a multifaceted approach.


Technology to Fight for the Cause

For platforms, proactive measures include enhancing their AI and machine learning algorithms to better detect and shut down suspicious activities.

Regularly updating these tools to adapt to the ever-evolving tactics of drug dealers is crucial.

Moreover, platforms should consider running awareness campaigns directly on their sites to inform users about the dangers of online drug procurement.


Education for Adults and Teens

Educating the public is paramount.

Schools, community groups, and other institutions can host informational sessions, spotlighting the risks of drug purchasing on social media and dealers’ subtle tactics.

Knowledge is a potent antidote, and an informed public is less likely to fall prey to such threats.


Communities Coming Together

Empowering communities with the knowledge and tools to identify and report suspicious activities fosters a collective sense of responsibility.

Encouraging a culture of vigilance, where users actively look out for one another and report dubious content, can significantly aid platforms in their mission to purge illicit activities.

With technological advances, public education, and community collaboration, the digital sphere can become a safer environment for all its users.

The Ongoing Fight for Safer Social Media

The unchecked promotion of drugs on social media underscores a grave digital-age challenge, exposing users to the dangers of unregulated substances and normalizing drug culture among the vulnerable.

Platforms, users, and authorities must unite in this fight.

Platforms must enhance detection mechanisms, users should be educated and vigilant, and authorities need to reinforce digital policing.

Together, a safer and more responsible online community can be fostered.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, we are here to offer support. Cornerstone Healing Center is an Arizona drug rehab

We provide holistic healing approaches, focusing on recovery’s physical and emotional aspects.

With a supportive environment and a team of dedicated professionals, we offer a comprehensive approach to overcoming addiction and rediscovering a life of balance and well-being.

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Author & Reviewers

julie miller recovery writer and author
Julie is a recovery advocate, with over two years sober. She is a recovery speaker who believes people can change for the better. Her mission is to write factual, helpful information about addiction, treatment, and recovery. She believes that no one should be left in the dark about the process at any stage of their recovery.
lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s treatment facilities in Arizona. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges, he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of conditions.

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