“Before social media, I usually got about five clients daily,” says Alex*, who didn’t want to use their real name or reveal his or her gender.
“Now let’s say I get at least 15 clients a day from Facebook.”
It all began when the 31-year-old began using traditional social media platforms such as Facebook to plug contacts on Wickr — an encrypted messaging service — as a way to reach a new customer base.
Alex’s experience reflects how much the market for street drugs has changed over the past decade. With so many in lockdown because of coronavirus, or with limited access to clubs and parties where small quantities of drugs are traditionally traded, selling drugs has become more digitised than ever. And social media is the perfect forum.
The internet is embraced by dealers, and buyers, for its simplicity and global reach. But while large drug trading websites like Dream Market or Silk Road have been shut down by law enforcement, social media has emerged as a flourishing new marketplace made up of thousands of small-time dealers who sell tiny amounts of drugs to individual users.
International drug manufacturers and distributors are now able to export small amounts of drugs directly to users anywhere in the world and in some cases avoid the risky importation of large volumes of drugs that are not only harder to hide, but also come with significant penalties.
The technology has led to a huge shift in the way drugs are moved around the world, ushering in a new standard for this illegal industry.
You may think that these direct-to-consumer drug markets orbit the deep and dark webs — underground bazaars where illegal activity can interact outside the immediate gaze of law enforcement.
But social media platforms like Snapchat, Grindr, Facebook and Instagram offer people like Alex, and dealers and buyers across the world, an entirely new business model.
‘It’s just so easy to do’
Dr James Martin is a specialist in crypto-markets and the illicit online drugs trade, from Swinburne University. He says ease of entry into buying and selling drugs is the key appeal of using social media.
These platforms now exist as a halfway point between street markets and the darknet.
“We get why people use the darknet because it is so secure, it’s encrypted, it’s very difficult for law enforcement to penetrate and to actually gather evidence, or even figure out what’s going on, on the darknet,” Martin says.
Explainer: What is the dark net?
“But of course social media isn’t like that. And the most obvious response, when people are asked about why they use social media apps to buy drugs, is convenience. It’s just so easy to do.
“There have been studies done overseas that suggest that more people who report buying drugs online are doing it via social media rather than the darknet … the darknet sounds terrifying to people who don’t know much about it.”
The appeal of social media over the darknet is the ease with which dealers can promote their product and while that also raises the risk of attracting the attention of police many dealers believe there is little risk of being caught.
There’s a reason for that.
“[It’s] all safe. Anywhere,” says one dealer over Instagram. “[It] all depends on your plug.”
“Shipping is super safe since you don’t disclose the content of the package before [taking it] to the mailbox,” says another, who has used Instagram and a website to ship across the world from the US for the last two years, averaging six transactions a day.
Right now Instagram is the top place to sell, the dealer says. Unlike Alex, this dealer believes “Facebook and Twitter are crap” compared with Instagram, which doesn’t require any personal details in order to create an account.
Police are facing new challenges
As the drug market becomes increasingly digitised, law enforcement is struggling to keep pace.
The use of encrypted technologies, VPNs, offshore data and a lack of legislation to control digital platforms are some of the challenges facing police as they seek to crack down on drug dealers trading this way.
Tell me a secret
“This is particularly the case on personal and public social media sites, but we are actively targeting these spaces.”
According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), illicit drug seizures increased by almost 70 per cent between 2008-09 and 2017-18, with international mail now the most common method of importation.
The core problem is micro-importation, a form of drug trafficking that favours small, personal quantities of substances, says Dr John Coyne, the Head of Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“This is the thing that’s going to break the [drug enforcement] model,” he says.
Historically, law enforcement has focused on catching bigger figures and bulk seizures, Coyne explains, but this approach doesn’t necessarily translate to the changing drug market.
“All [law enforcement] has in terms of their key performance measures for their organisation … what’s called ‘successful prosecutions’,” he says.
“No-one wants to invest a million dollars into an investigation that doesn’t result in an outcome.”
“So, in essence, the police are only going to investigate large imports where they’re guaranteed, or a near guarantee, of a successful prosecution.”
‘Fundamental and tectonic shifts’
While the takedown of the darknet’s Silk Road in 2013 showed that digital drug markets aren’t invincible, it was comparatively high-profile and had attracted global attention.
When it comes to smaller, less infamous importers, however, law enforcement is often stifled by the need to prioritise larger busts, alongside limited resources.
If one point of heroin (around 0.1 gram) is intercepted by postal officials, for example, it may be tested but “it won’t be investigated as a general rule”, says Dr Coyne.
If your small package of drugs does catch attention, “the chances of you ever seeing court are pretty low”, he adds.
“This is [why] law enforcement has to acknowledge that there are some fundamental and tectonic shifts in the nature of the illicit drug market,” says Coyne, who believes there needs to be a greater policy focus on harm minimisation and reduction.
But law enforcement isn’t alone in this struggle.
“We encourage anyone to report this kind of content immediately so we can review and take appropriate action,” a spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Snapchat pointed to its in-app reporting tools, adding that it encouraged “anyone who sees illegal content to report it”.
The role of AI
Beyond user reporting, social media platforms rely heavily on AI technology and machine learning to comb for any illegal activity that breaches community standards, from child pornography or drug trafficking. The logic being that flagging and banning anything that facilitates illegal activity will ultimately prevent it.
The reliance on social media users to report suspicious activities and on AI algorithms to flag certain words, hashtags or users fails to accept the essential role of human intelligence, argues Dr Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales.
He believes relying on AI is reductive.
“What [social media companies] would like you to believe is that they’re more and more capable, but [AI is] always going to require, at the moment, human oversight,” Walsh explains.
“[AI] hasn’t succeeded at all, really, at high-level language. And we don’t know how to get there. And we’ve spent 50 years trying to get there. And we’ve only just got AI doing the simplest things that birds and mice and slugs can do.
“We haven’t built anything that really understands the world, [or] the language used in the world.”
Dr Walsh’s immediate suggestion is to increase human moderation and make digital platforms accountable for their content — an opportunity already within the means of these platforms.
“There’s this mistake that algorithms aren’t biased, and we can’t moderate the algorithms — we can.”
‘I’ve never been accused by a cop’
Last year, following the streaming of the Christchurch mosque shootings over Facebook, legislation introduced by the Australian Government effectively made platforms like Facebook responsible for the sharing of violent content.
Legislative regulations are not without criticism, but the Christchurch example does imply the existing potential for social media platforms in monitoring their content. But any direct challenge to social media drug dealers feels a long way off.
“It’s a very cyber-libertarian undercurrent of hacker culture, which the web started out with, which was the idea that you can’t and you shouldn’t regulate the tech space,” says Walsh.
“I think something that we’ve discovered in the last 10 years is that you can — there are plentiful examples of laws that regulate the tech space that actually improved our society.”
Whether or not such regulations would end, or merely rearrange, the markets for drugs remains unclear. But it underscores how people like Alex represent a developing market that is seen by some as impervious to the law.
“[The platforms] can only get an account banned for a while, from doing a few things, that’s all,” Alex explains, admitting to two previous temporary Facebook bans.
“Cops only come in when you’re driving for a delivery — might get searched and stuff. Apart from that, I’ve never been accused by a cop on Facebook.”
*Name changed to protect identity.