November 2021

App attack: lockdown spurs move to social media marketplace

On the DEA radar

In the United States, social media operators are under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to bolster efforts to combat online drug sales.

Speaking to The Washington Post in late September, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said her agency intended to contact Snapchat and TikTok directly “with specific demands”.

At the time, both TikTok and Snapchat owner Snap told The Post they were strictly opposed to online drug trading.

The companies said they were actively working to block the advertising of drugs on their channels and were either restricting or redirecting specific drug-related search terms.

Picture this

In social media posts, often it’s what’s shown rather than said that’s at the heart of a message – and never more so than when specific search terms are in channel moderators’ sights.

To help parties on both sides of the drug trade evade detection, a coded language has evolved.

Rather than written text, emojis are commonly used by buyers as well as sellers to represent various substances.

Deprived of their customary face-to-face interaction by COVID-19 lockdowns, tech-savvy members of Generation Z have turned to social media as a way of trading drugs with minimal risk of being identified.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Australia in March 2020, Fabian (not his real name) wondered what that would mean for his supply of drugs.

Before the pandemic, Fabian, who is 26 years old and lives in Melbourne, often used party drugs like MDMA, speed, cocaine and ketamine on the weekends.

He would normally pick up on nights out with his mates, but with pubs, bars and music festivals shut down for the foreseeable future, he knew that his usual means of scoring had vanished.

Almost overnight, Fabian saw social media platforms become the primary marketplace for his preferred drugs.

If you’re not going to clubs and bars or whatever, you’re confined to whatever you have in front of you.

Fabian

“Everything just took off,” he says. “Everybody was kind of already using Wickr and Snapchat but suddenly they were the only tools. If you’re not going to clubs and bars or whatever, you’re confined to whatever you have in front of you.”

Not new, but different

The use of online marketplaces for drugs has been around since 2011, when websites like Silk Road enabled people to purchase drugs from the ‘dark web’ and have them delivered.

But since Silk Road was shut down by the authorities in 2013, the use of social media to transact drugs has grown slowly, until things really kicked off with the onset of the pandemic last year, says Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s head of Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement, Dr John Coyne.

“There were a couple of things that really stopped websites like Silk Road from gaining real traction,” John says. “First off, in any transaction there has to be a relationship of trust. It’s a big thing to trust someone over the internet who you don’t meet and who doesn’t have a face or a real name.

In terms of using the internet to access drugs, there has been a fundamental shift accelerated by COVID-19

Dr John Coyne

“In terms of using the internet to access drugs, there has been a fundamental shift accelerated by COVID-19. There are still elements of the dark web that people access but social media has become increasingly prolific.

“It’s really an unintended consequence of lockdowns and COVID-19. If you’re restricted in access and travel and movement, then of course it’s just logical that you’ll change the way you access and obtain your drugs.”

Social media is most frequently used in the illicit drugs market as a communication device, and occasionally as a means of promotion and advertising.

Fabian says he mostly uses platforms like Wickr to communicate with dealers, explaining that these are preferred for their function and perceived levels of security.

“One hundred per cent, I’d say without a doubt, platforms like Wickr are preferred. You meet someone, they always ask if you’ve got Wickr. I’ve never really had anyone try to palm me off to Instagram or anything. They all prefer Wickr.

“I feel it’s like a comfort factor where you have someone’s Wickr details,” he says.

You have their details if something goes wrong, whereas you can’t do that if you’re in a club or the dark web or wherever.

Fabian

“You have a future contact and you can follow up with someone. You have their details if something goes wrong, whereas you can’t do that if you’re in a club or the dark web or wherever. Psychologically I think it’s a bit of a reassuring factor that you can get in touch with them again.”

Fabian says he’s reluctant to trust somebody advertising drugs directly on social media and prefers to use it only to communicate.

“I’ve had random adds on Instagram from people who have their profile picture as some kind of drug. They’ll try to add you; they have a public profile and their bio will have like a bunch of different emojis and weird symbols. They’re very, very open, advertising different bags of choof and stuff. I’ve never followed it up because it just seemed really suss.”

Sense of security

Almost all social media platforms use encrypted end-to-end messaging which encodes text information between users and adds an extra level of security for transactions, says John.

“The rise of encryption and its wide use has made communication far more secure, and young people are very smart about that,” he says.

Encryption is like plasma to social media and all digital services – it makes things work

Dr John Coyne

“Encryption is like plasma to social media and all digital services – it makes things work. You can’t have social media and banking and other things without encryption. It’s a life hygiene factor of society.

“It’s become pivotal that social media and the ubiquitous use of encryption have changed the nature of communication around the drug deal. It’s a natural extension of what’s happening in our society.”

This has also led to an increase in “micro-imports”, says John, with greater numbers of smaller quantities of drugs being brought into Australia. In conjunction with the rise of encryption, this has disrupted the traditional models of law enforcement, making it harder for authorities to stop the supply of drugs.

“The law enforcement approach is to increase the amount of seizures. This reduces the availability of drugs in the community, forces the price up and reduces use,” he says.

“If you see a fragmentation of the market into micro-imports, that really blows the policing model of the state and territory and federal police. All of a sudden, you don’t have the big busts. And to deal with this, a lot more resources have to be applied for less reward.”

Lachlan (not his real name), 24, from Perth, has occasionally sold drugs through social media in the past three or four years and says that since the COVID pandemic began he has been “busier than ever”.

“Yeah, it’s definitely taken off,” he says. “I made more money in the first few months of last year than I probably did in the entire year before.

Things just suddenly went through the roof. Everybody was getting government support and lots of people who didn’t have jobs had all this time on their hands.

Lachlan

“Things just suddenly went through the roof. Everybody was getting government support and lots of people who didn’t have jobs had all this time on their hands.”

Lachlan says he mostly uses the popular photo-sharing app Snapchat to let customers know when he has “picked up”. He feels it’s a safe and anonymous way of promoting his business.

“The beauty of Snapchat is that the photos disappear moments after they’re opened. Whoever I’ve sent them to can only see the image for a couple of seconds before it self-destructs,” he says.

“It definitely makes me feel a bit safer and minimises the chances of it getting into the hands of the cops and me getting caught.”

He says he doesn’t feel comfortable using platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which are linked to a personal profile and are less anonymous then Snapchat and Wickr, where users identify themselves only through their username.

Fabian says he has also noticed that social media platforms have helped dealers to become more sophisticated, with multiple people able to share the same account and access more customers more efficiently.

“There was one guy on Wickr and every time I would message him and go to meet up with him, there’d be a different person there to meet me,” Fabian says.

“I realised he had multiple runners using the same account. It’s huge. It’s heaps more efficient than a traditional way of doing it. You’re using a shared inbox and limiting the risk, right?”

Generation gap

Social media is used mostly to transact drugs by people of Lachlan’s and Fabian’s demographic, says John. It’s most popular among “teens and 20-somethings” in metropolitan areas who have grown up with this technology and feel comfortable using it, most commonly to purchase party-type drugs.

“I would say teens to 20-somethings are probably the biggest uptakers of this: people who are really comfortable with the online environment, who are really comfortable with online shopping and online everything,” he says. “This is just a natural extension of that.

“Somebody with a heavy addiction to heroin or methamphetamine is probably not going to use social media; they’d rather go through traditional channels and people they know and trust.”

The evolution of the digital era has changed the idea of what drug dealing actually looks like, says John, and the approach authorities take to the issue is having to evolve along with that.

“The whole idea of what drug dealing actually is is changing, not under the law but certainly under the idea of what the transaction looks like. COVID is accelerating that.

“People are now engaging on different platforms and the nature of communication itself has changed. You can have pretty secure communication – and that makes things very difficult for law enforcement.

“The issue here is a broader one. It’s clear that the whole whack-a-mole approach doesn’t work. Things are constantly evolving and changing quite quickly in today’s society, and the approach that we take to this issue has to change with it.”

– Tom de Souza