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Counterfeit Pharmaceutical Drugs and Illegal Narcotics Sell on Social Media

Lately, there has been an explosion of drug dealers selling counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs, illegal narcotics and other controlled substances through social media. This explosion of online activity has contributed to the US drug crisis. In 2017, more than 70,200 Americans died from a drug overdose. Around 68 percent of those deaths resulted from opioid overdoses.

Online platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become ground-zero for drug sellers to connect with buyers. This illegal marketing, diversion, and access exposes the public to risk and thwarts programs and interventions to counter the addiction crisis. Drug dealers and illegal online pharmacies take advantage of the convenience, anonymity, and broad reach of these platforms to promote counterfeit and illicit narcotics.

ACCO member Professor Timothy K. Mackey and his team at the University of California, San Diego have developed artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning tools to detect and prevent illicit trade in drugs online and via social media platforms. Learn more about their work below.

ACCO Experts Identify Fake Tweets Selling Controlled Substances

A five-month investigation conducted in 2015, found a total of 1778 tweets that were identified as marketing the sale of controlled substances, 771 tweets were detected as marketing the sale of fentanyl. 90% had imbedded hyperlinks, 46 were “live” at the time of the study’s evaluation. Some online pharmacies originated in high-risk countries such as Pakistan where individuals have been prosecuted for illegal importation of opioids.

Instagram and Illegal Drug Dealing

An ongoing study focused on Instagram has identified more than one thousand posts from more than a hundred Instagram accounts associated with illegal drug dealing. Detected posts contained hashtags related to the controlled substance Xanax, Oxycodone/Oxycontin, and illicit drugs LSD and MDMA. The study also observed social media users engaged in drug sale transaction conversations.

Thousands of Tweets Associated to the Online Sale of Prescription Opioids

Another investigation conducted in 2017 found that among 213,041 tweets containing keywords codeine, percocet, vicodin, oxycontin, oxycodone, fentanyl, and hydrocodone, 692 were associated with illegal online marketing and sale of prescription opioids. Among “live” tweets, 44% directing consumers to illicit online pharmacies, 32% linked to individual drug sellers, and 21% were used by marketing affiliates. In addition to offering the “no prescription” sale of opioids, many of these vendors also sold other illicit drugs.

Instagram and Illegal Drug Dealing

An ongoing study focused on Instagram has identified more than one thousand posts from more than a hundred Instagram accounts associated with illegal drug dealing. Detected posts contained hashtags related to the controlled substance Xanax, Oxycodone/Oxycontin, and illicit drugs LSD and MDMA. The study also observed social media users engaged in drug sale transaction conversations.