Research: Analyzing the use of messaging and social media apps to trade and access drugs
Drug suppliers have been increasingly using modern technologies to boost profits and minimize risk during the past few years. Even though a large number of research studies have examined drug sales via surface internet pharmacies as well as darknet marketplaces, no research studies have delved into the role of smartphone messaging applications and social media in the modern drug economy.
A recently published research paper analyzes the means via which such apps (e.g. WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and others) are utilized by suppliers and buyers in drug trading. The study employed an online survey that involved 358 drug users, who had either used or experienced others using messaging and social media apps to buy drugs. The interviews investigated the perceived advantages and risks associated with trading drugs via such apps, with emphasis on innovative supply and buying practices. Throughout this article, we will delve into some of the interesting information presented via this study.
Messaging and social media apps commonly used to facilitate drug trading:
The study outlines the social and messaging apps that are currently used commonly by sellers and buyers to facilitate drug trading. On social media applications, such as Snapchat and Instagram, buyers usually identify sellers by searching for special “hashtags” and opting to follow users with relevant posts. When approved, a buyer can view the posts of the “followed” user in their post feed. “Following” a supplier, or a seller, provides the buyer with a platform to browse available products via stock photos or video posts, and it also offers means for private direct communication between buyers and sellers, via the apps built-in messaging services. Occasionally, once sellers are contacted by buyers, they may redirect them to more secure messaging services such as WhatsApp or Wickr, which offer better security via end-to-end encryption.
Drug trading via apps and social media usually takes place through “face-to-face” meetings in local public areas, or via home drop-offs, with local sellers connecting to buyers via an app’s hashtags or “location services”. Even though direct face-to-face meetings seem to be the main means of exchange, forum discussions also identify the presence of a percentage of sellers who use online payment processors, cryptocurrencies, and global money transfer services (e.g. Western Union) to process payments before shipping products directly to the buyers.
The research study identified the following mobile phone applications as the most commonly used apps in drug trading nowadays:
Snapchat is a messaging and multimedia app that enables users to send “Snaps” (photos and videos) that are set to self-destruct following a predefined period of time. Snaps sent to a user’s “followers” can be overlaid with any form of text.
A drug supplier’s username on Snapchat is usually obtained from other online locations (e.g. darknet market vendor pages, other social media apps, darknet forums, etc). Suppliers send snaps to their followers to advertise products available for sale. Text overlaying snaps usually include product descriptions and how they can be obtained.
Followers can message suppliers directly via Snapchat or via another messaging service as instructed by the supplier. Commonly, transactions are arranged locally, yet shipping is also possible.
Instagram is a social media app for sharing photos and videos. Users’ posts can be viewed by followers and friends.
Hashtags on Instagram can be used to search for relevant content and drug suppliers (e.g. #buyfentanyl). A supplier’s profile enables buyers to browse photos and videos of products. Followers can contact suppliers directly via Instagram’s messaging app or via another messaging service as instructed by the supplier. Transactions are often executed locally, but shipping is also available.
Wickr is a messaging app that offers users end-to-end encryption for all communication messages, sent photos/videos, and files. A potential buyer often obtains suppliers’ usernames from other online locations, such as social media apps, vendor pages on crypto markets, or darknet forums. Wickr offers users a secure messaging service that can be used by buyers to arrange deals with suppliers. Commonly, transactions are arranged locally, yet shipping is also possible.
WhatsApp is a secure messaging app that utilizes end-to-end encryption for all sent messages, photos, videos, and file attachments. Buyers can find the numbers of suppliers on other online portals such as social networks, darknet market vendor pages, or darknet market forums. WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging service provides secure means for arranging deals. Transactions are often executed locally, yet shipping is also available.
5- Kik Messenger:
Kik is an online messaging application. The security of Kik is questionable, especially since users’ IP addresses are recorded by the company. A supplier’s username is found on other online locations, such as social media apps, vendor pages on crypto markets, or darknet forums. Deals are often arranged locally, but shipping is also possible.
Private groups, where an invitation is required to join, enable suppliers to advertise their products and offer a contact point for buyers. Deals that are arranged over Facebook’s Messenger usually take place between users who are already friends on Facebook. Transactions are often arranged locally, but shipping is also possible.
Telegram is an instant messaging and voice messaging app. Buyers obtain suppliers’ usernames from other online locations (as above). Transactions are often arranged locally, but shipping is also occasionally used.
Tinder is an online location based dating app. Users swipe through various profiles while searching for emojis denoting a supplier or a user seeking someone to do drugs with. Transactions are usually executed locally, but shipping is available too.
Whisper is a location based, anonymous social media app. Whisper is mainly used by buyers to post a “confession” indicating drug requirement (e.g. anyone selling weed?). However, it can also be used by suppliers to advertise drugs.
Table (1) shows the percentage of use of various apps by the users interviewed throughout the study.
Table (1): Use of various apps by interviewed drug users
The paper provides some insight regarding the various ways apps are utilized to facilitate drug trading. Due to the continuous advancement of social media technologies, it seems that their use in drug trading will continue to grow, especially among young populations. Despite calls for social media companies to crackdown on content related to drugs, it is also pivotal to channel harm reduction advice towards app users.