Is social media the new silk road?
by Geoff Gillette
Most people think of social media as kind of a silly place, where people share what they’re having for dinner or post cat videos and other goofy things. Usually the fear in regard to social media has to do with mainstream (and very justifiable) concerns of cyberbullying.
The really bad stuff only happens in that mysterious zone of the internet called The Deep Web, right?
Wrong! Popular social media site Instagram and their parent company Facebook are fast becoming known as the go-to platform for people looking to peddle illicit drugs.
A simple hashtag search can lead even the least tech-savvy Instagram or Facebook user to thousands of images of illegal and prescription drugs for sale.
#Xanax has more than 100,000 images?
A very illuminating article in Venturebeat lays out the problem in simple terms. There are thousands of accounts on Instagram that provide marijuana, Ecstasy and many other pharmacological substances. These peddlers post to their Instagram accounts, many also being shared to their Facebook pages as well. In most cases, the postings also carry contact info, to temporary e-mail or burner cell phone accounts and it is through these that transactions are carried out.
It should be mentioned that the transactions are NOT being done on either of these social media platforms. Federal investigators could not charge Instagram or Facebook with illegal activity. These platforms merely provide a method for sellers and buyers to connect. The actual sales are occurring through the use of untraceable transactions like Bitcoin.
These black marketeers have regular followers, but also utilize hashtags to spread the word about their product. Some are fairly straightforward, like #Xanax, which has thousands and thousands of hits. Many simply mention the drug without making any attempt to sell, but plenty of them are designed to sell the drug as well.
It used to be that finding these sorts of illegal substances was the province of the Deep Web and The Silk Road. But the shift of those looking for a market for their product to mainstream social media signals a fundamental change and one that parents need to pay attention to. The ease with which these images can be found and the resultant connections made is scary.
Many teens are skipping over Facebook in favor of Instagram due to the immediacy of sharing information and the control that users have over their own generated content. But the easy accessibility to these influences means that parents will need to be more aware of what their children are doing on Instagram and Facebook.
On the plus side of the equation, law enforcement is aware of and actively using these self-same methods to conduct stings that have resulted in numerous arrests. But given the seemingly huge number of people using these platforms to sell drugs, does the possibility of an arrest being made outweigh the potential harm these illegal substances could do?
Both Facebook and Instagram respond to these concerns with similar rhetoric, “If you see it, flag it, and we’ll take it down.” Additionally, they have begun blocking the hashtags they are made aware of. This is strictly a reactive approach and one that can only ever have limited success. But what is the answer? For every hashtag blocked, five more spring up.
For parents, vigilance is the watchword, and frank dialogues with children about the dangers involved and transparency with children regarding what it is they are looking at and where they’re going on the internet.
The Deep Web isn’t quite so deep anymore, and that’s a scary thought.
What do you think? Should the internet be an open market for anything? Or should social media companies like Facebook and Instagram crack down on this?
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