In recent years, social media apps have provided drug dealers with a new platform for selling their illicit goods online to anyone interested. This is especially true for Snapchat, a popular social media platform that has provided the new generation with a way to make impromptu transactions for narcotics.
There are now young people using Snapchat to sell drugs, and business is booming. It attracts more clients than word of mouth and dealing in the streets due to online reach, gathering as much as three times more clients compared to conventional means. While Facebook and Twitter may still be used, Snapchat is what has been taking the trend further.
Let’s look into how social media platforms like Snapchat are being used to sell drugs and what we can do to mitigate it.
How Snapchat and Other Social Media Platforms Are Used to Sell Drugs
First, the drug dealer gets into traditional social media platforms like Facebook to find clients. They then plug interested contacts into an encrypted messaging service like Wickr to communicate and facilitate transactions.
Snapchat in particular has its 24-hour posts, which makes it perfect for advertising drugs and not having to worry about deleting posts later. They can then have people inquire about their services and either discuss it in text messages within Snapchat or funnel them towards their encrypted messaging service of choice to discuss their transaction privately.
Drug dealers are called “plugs,” using a plug emoji to identify themselves. They plug clients in for whatever they’re selling, whether it’s marijuana, cocaine, meth, Xanax, or so on. Some of these plugs quick-add people on Snapchat and categorize them by zip code.
Drug Dealing Through Snapchat During the Pandemic
The market for street drugs has changed over the past ten or so years, thanks to social media. However, it has changed even more with the lockdowns mandated to mitigate the coronavirus in 2020. With curfews in place, establishments like clubs shut down, and events like concerts and parties prohibited, dealers needed to go with the one way that let them attract customers and sell their wares during this time.
They would lean heavily on digital means, and social media happens to be the perfect forum. Large drug trading websites such as Dream Market and Silk Road were shut down by law enforcement, despite being hosted in the digital underground that is the dark web. Therefore, decentralized means through social media are what allow small-time dealers to sell small amounts of drugs to individual users.
That has also given drug manufacturers and distributors a fairly reliable way to earn from selling small amounts of drugs directly to users anywhere in the world. They don’t have to risk shipping large volumes of drugs that are harder to hide and yield significant consequences upon discovery by customs and law enforcement.
It has also made drugs much more accessible to users under legal age. What used to be sold through the dark web is now being sold more in broad daylight, digitally speaking. This has given “plugs” a whole new business model they can rely on, letting them sell drugs more easily while there aren’t any reliable means to catch and penalize them.
Social Media and AI
The only way social media platforms like Snapchat can reliably catch drug dealers is by encouraging user reports, which hasn’t been reliable. Most users who come across the dealing of illicit activities like drugs, child pornography, and so on are clients themselves, which makes them unlikely to report them.
That’s why these companies have been pushing for AI technology and machine learning to come up with a way to find these illegal activities within their platforms. They develop algorithms that flag certain keywords, hashtags, and other suspicious activities in order to catch them in the act and ban them.
However, experts see this reliance on AI as too reductive due to the current limitations of the technology. Plugs and clients need only to use codewords to disguise their conversations in order to outsmart these AI algorithms.
And even if they get caught, all that can be done is to ban those users, who will most likely create new accounts to continue their activities. Privacy policies prevent them from being reported to authorities unless they wish to set precedents that ultimately undo those very policies.
Even if authorities get a hold of records of those conversations, there’s still the encryption that must be cracked in order to get anything useful out of them.
Law Enforcement Challenges
It has been a struggle for law enforcement to keep up with the digitization of the drug market. VPNs, encryption technology, offshore data, and lack of legislation for controlling digital platforms have posed challenges in cracking down drug dealers on social media.
While online drug dealing is nothing new, the decentralized nature of drug dealing on platforms like Snapchat, with all of the obstacles posed by the technology, has made it more difficult for law enforcement to get a bead on small-time drug dealers. But the real obstacle is micro-importation, which is the trafficking of small quantities meant for personal consumption.
Those small amounts are easier to hide and transport, as opposed to big amounts in the old days that get found and get reported on a regular basis. If that small amount does get found and intercepted, it likely won’t be investigated since it’s in such a small amount that the resources put into the investigation would not be worth it.
That means drug traffickers who use this method risk very little, with chances of seeing court being fairly low. This is creating a fundamental shift in drug enforcement, with more people now moving to advocate for harm minimization and reduction measures over traditional policing.
The best that law enforcement can do is to intercept deliveries of the drugs, which isn’t easy if they don’t know who may be transporting those drugs, to begin with.
That has paved the way for more intrusive searches and raids happening all across the country. The number of no-knock raids has increased in recent years, and so is the amount of news of SWAT teams breaching the wrong houses and even taking the lives of innocent citizens.
It’s imperative for parents to educate their children on things they may see show up on social media apps, as well as monitor their activities without being too intrusive as to impede their development. In a perfect world, parents won’t have to
Meanwhile, Snapchat has not come out with an official response regarding questions about policies related to illegal activities on their platform. All they have done on the matter is to provide resources for users to report such activities.