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Report finds Instagram makes it easy for teens to find drugs online

Even accounts tied to minors can seemingly skirt the company's protections.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

Instagram makes it trivial for teens as young as 13 to find and buy drugs like MDMA and Xanax, according to a newly published report from the Tech Transparency Project. The organization recently conducted an investigation where it created a series of fake accounts to test the safeguards Instagram has in place to protect young people from potentially deadly pharmaceuticals.

While hashtags like #mdma are banned on the platform, TTP found it was easy to skirt those restrictions with an account tied to a minor. Using MDMA as an example, the organization found it could employ terms like “mdmamolly” to find people who were selling the substance. In fact, the app’s search algorithm made it easy to find those hashtags, with its autocomplete feature pointing researchers in the right direction.

To make matters worse, once someone follows even just one account belonging to an alleged drug dealer, Instagram’s recommendation algorithm will suggest the user follow similar profiles. Despite Instagram's Community Guidelines prohibiting “buying or selling non-medical or pharmaceutical drugs,” TTP found many drug dealers operate openly on the platform.

Separately, TTP says Instagram did not take decisive action against the content it found on the platform. The organization claims it submitted 50 posts to the company for review. Of those, Instagram said 36 (or 72 percent) did not violate its Community Guidelines, despite what TTP says were “clear signs” of drug dealing activity. At the time of publishing, the company had only banned one account flagged by TTP. However, when the organization went to check on that profile, it was still up on Instagram along with all of its violating content.

“We prohibit drug sales on Instagram. We removed 1.8 million pieces of content related to drug sales in the last quarter alone, and due to our improving detection technology, the prevalence of such content is about 0.05 percent of content viewed, or about 5 views per every 10,000,” Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Meta, told Engadget. “We’ll continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep Instagram safe, particularly for our youngest community members.”

The report comes just one day before Adam Mosseri is slated to testify to the Senate about Instagram’s impact on young users. The platform has faced increasing scrutiny in recent weeks following testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. According to Haugen, Meta, then Facebook, knew from its own internal research Instagram was harmful to many teens and yet the company disregarded those warnings. TTP’s findings are likely to inform some of the questions the consumer protection subcommittee asks Mosseri on Wednesday.