Instagram’s algorithms recommend drug dealers’ accounts to minor users, according to a new report from the Tech Transparency Project. The platform also suggests drug-related hashtags, the report found.
In the report, published Tuesday, the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) created seven fake accounts for teen users aged 13, 14, 15, and 17. Instagram did not stop those accounts from searching for drug-related content. In one case, the platform auto-filled results when a user started typing “buyxanax” into the search bar. One suggested account was a Xanax dealer.
After following the account of a Xanax dealer, a fake minor user got a direct message “with a menu of products, prices, and shipping options,” the report found. A fake minor account that followed an Instagram dealer got suggestions to follow an account selling Adderall.
“I would say Instagram is one of the worst places for exposure to this kind of content,” Tim Mackey, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and founder of S-3, a company that tracks illegal drug sales online, told NBC News.
Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Instagram parent company Meta, said in a statement to NBC News that the platform prohibits drug sales. “We’ll continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep Instagram safe, particularly for our youngest community members.”
The report also found that Instagram’s guardrails against drug-related content aren’t working well. The platform bans many drug-related hashtags, like #mdma, but when the fake minor users tried to search that hashtag, Instagram suggested alternates — like #mollymdma. Otway told NBC News that the company will review hashtags to check for policy violations.
The report comes during a period of renewed scrutiny of how Instagram and Facebook affect the mental and physical health of its adolescent and teen users. A group of academic researchers published an open letter Monday calling for Meta to be more transparent about its research on the mental health of its young users. Congress held hearings on the platforms in October after reports in The Wall Street Journal highlighted concerns that Instagram could harm the mental health of young users, particularly teenage girls. During those hearings, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) pointed to another TTP report, which found that Facebook approved ads promoting drug use and anorexia.