Instagram tries to ban drug hashtags, with mixed results

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In the midst of parent company Facebook’s privacy scandal, Instagram is doing everything it can to ensure that it doesn’t run into any scandals of its own. For the last several years, a woman named Eileen Carey has “regularly reported” Instagram accounts that were peddling opioids, Wired wrote. And after she took to Twitter to confront two Facebook executives about the matter, it looks as though the photo-sharing platform is cleaning up its act.

Last week, if you’d searched #Oxycontin on Instagram, you would have met with more than 30,000 posts. Now, if you try the same search, you’ll get zero. The decision to ban drug-related hashtags comes in the wake of increasing concerns over social media’s role in drug sales and abuse, and indeed, in broader societal issues as well. Last week, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called out a number of these companies, including Facebook and Instagram, for allowing illegal activity to run rampant on their platforms (an issue that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is currently addressing on Capitol Hill).

“I know that internet firms are reluctant to cross a threshold, where they could find themselves taking on a broader policing role,” Gottlieb said, “But these are insidious threats being propagated on these web platforms.”

In a statement of its own, an Instagram spokesperson confirmed that prescription drug-related hashtags are being more carefully policed, noting that the app’s community guidelines “make it clear that buying or selling prescription drugs isn’t allowed on Instagram, and we have zero tolerance when it comes to content that puts the safety of our community at risk.”

Still, plenty of critics are questioning why it has taken Instagram so long to take action. After all, Carey claims that she has been raising the issue for years. As she told CNN, “Instagram has allowed this to happen to a point where no one is hiding it.”

Instagram says that it is trying to simplify the reporting process within the app so that users can more easily effect change, but in the meantime, the platform is attempting to take down the accounts and hashtags that Carey has flagged. Unfortunately, when Digital Trends looked into a few other hashtags like #opiates or #fentanyl, tens of thousands of posts were still surfaced.

It is still possible, however, that 2018 will the year when tech companies are held to a higher standard when it comes to their role in the drug crisis. This summer, the FDA is planning a summit with tech executives, academics, and advocates to find potential solutions, including “altering search algorithms” in order to alert potential buyers to health risks and offer treatment options. And in February, a bipartisan group of senators penned a letter to the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Pinterest, asking them to help cut down on illegal digital drug sales and advertising.

“It shouldn’t take this much effort to get people to realize that you have some responsibility for the stuff on your platform,” Libby Baney, executive director of the Alliance of Safe Online Pharmacies, told CNN. “A 13 year old could do this search and realize there’s bad stuff on your platform — and probably has — you don’t need the commissioner of the FDA to tell you that. It’s great that he did, but it shouldn’t have gotten to this point.”