Instagram’s algorithms are designed to constantly learn more about their users’ interests based on the accounts they follow, the hashtags they use and click on, and the posts they ‘like,’ so that every refresh of the app generates similar fresh content that will keep them scrolling. Simply double-tapping on a friend’s picture of #avocadotoast, for example, and Instagram will ensure that you never miss another relevant avocado toast photo posted to the app again.
Instagram’s ability to deliver hyper-personalized content has a dark side, however, as the Facebook-owned app has allegedly become an open marketplace for illegal and/or easily abused prescription drugs. According to the Washington Post, clicking on a hashtag like #adderall or liking a post by one of the thousands of dealer accounts results in the user’s feed suddenly being flooded with similar posts, and recommendations for other drug-related hashtags and accounts to follow. For users who aren’t actually interested in buying drugs, this sudden influx of illicit content on their feeds is an annoyance; but for vulnerable users who may be grappling with addiction, the algorithm serves to actively market an array of enticements and triggers.
“Just as drug use rewires the brain to crave more of the substance, social media platforms have designed their sites in such a way that after a single search for an illicit drug, the algorithm gets rewired to advertise drugs to the already vulnerable user,” Rick Lane, a longtime technology policy adviser, told The Washington Post.
Illicit content spreads on the platform at a rapid fire pace that their take down efforts can’t keep up with.
“We’re not yet sophisticated enough to tease apart every post to see if it’s trying to sell someone illegal drugs or they are taking Xanax cause they are stressed out,” Facebook’s vice president for global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, told the Washington Post. “Obviously, there is some stuff that gets through that is totally against our policy, and we’re getting better at it.”