Families press Snap to do more to curtail fentanyl sales to teens, saying recent changes don't do enough

·7 min read

Amy Neville looked out through her sunglasses to a crowd of more than two dozen parents and activists that had gathered outside Snap, Inc.’s Santa Monica headquarters last Friday to demand the company do more to combat illicit drug sales on its platform.

Holding a microphone, Neville took a second to gather herself, then began speaking to the crowd about the death of her 14-year-old son Alex, who she found unresponsive on the floor of his room in June 2020. Alex had purchased a fake OxyContin pill that contained enough fentanyl to kill four people from a dealer he met on the social media platform Snapchat.

“I relive the horror of that morning in my head too often,” Neville told the crowd. “But something else that keeps that horror from abating is that families all over America keep reenacting their own version of that moment every single day.”

Neville co-organized last Friday’s rally to share Alexander’s story and hold Snap accountable for what she says is its role in his death. Despite a recent series of new updates around this issue, Neville, families like hers and advocates say the company hasn’t done enough.

“We are committed to bringing every resource to bear to fight this national crisis both on Snapchat and across the tech industry, and will be rolling out additional initiatives in the coming months,” Kelsey Donohue, a Snap Inc. spokesperson, told USA TODAY.

More: Why is fentanyl so dangerous? The illicit drug has ruined lives during COVID pandemic

The updates come as Snap has faced mounting scrutiny in Washington, including from members of Congress, over its role in an opioid epidemic that is increasingly killing America’s teens.

Thousands of American teenagers have fallen victim to the dangerous influx of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills that are frequently sold through social media in recent years.

The company says it is changing its "Quick Add" friends suggestion so that it is impossible to add users under 18 unless there are a certain number of friends in common—a change meant to make it harder for drug dealers to connect with the app’s younger users.

But some parents say the change - and others by the company - don't do enough.

The dealers “can easily lie about their age on the app to avoid this,” Neville said in an interview with USA TODAY. “Not enough has changed.”

Overdoses — and opioid deaths — soar

Neville and her husband, Aaron, founded the Alexander Neville Foundation in 2020 after they realized how many other families had stories like Alex’s.

Neville says Alex was struggling during the early months of pandemic-induced lockdowns when he decided to experiment with drugs—first with marijuana and later with OxyContin. He connected with a drug dealer on Snapchat “with ease,” began purchasing what he believed was OxyContin and was gone within a month, she said.

“At first we thought it was a unique situation,” Neville said of people buying counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl on Snapchat. “But the more we started to learn about it, we realized that this is happening on a regular basis.”

The rise of fentanyl: How the synthetic opioid has taken over the Indianapolis drug scene

Accidental drug deaths in Americans younger than 24 increased 50% from 2019 to 2020, the largest increase of fatal overdoses in any age group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overdose deaths killed more than 100,000 people between April 2020 and April 2021 – a record high, according to the CDC. Three out of every four of those deaths were from opioids.

In 2021, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 14 million counterfeit pills and over 12,000 pounds of fentanyl — a significant increase over previous years. In September, the agency released its first public safety alert in six years to warn of the increase in access and frequency of seizures of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl.

While it's unclear exactly how many drugs have been sold via Snapchat—the company has legal protections around its responsibility for user generated content and it remains a privately held company—vice president of global public policy Jen Stout reported a 500% increase in investigation requests from law enforcement in 2021 compared to three years ago, according to a September email sent to Neville and other parents that Neville shared with USA TODAY. This reflects investigation requests broadly, not just specific to illegal drug activity.

More: 100 bags of fentanyl found in bedroom of Connecticut teen who overdosed at school, police say

Last week, Snap Inc. released a progress report detailing measures taken to combat illicit drug sales on its site. According to the report, the company now detects 88% of drug-related content through machine learning and artificial intelligence technology, an increase of 33% since the last public update in October, 2021.

When it detects drug dealing activity, the company bans the account, blocks the user from creating new Snapchat accounts and in some cases refers the account to law enforcement. Snap also says it expanded its law enforcement operations team by 74%.

“Over the last year we have significantly strengthened our tools for proactively detecting drug-dealing activity and shutting down dealers, improved our support for law enforcement, and educated Snapchatters about the fatal dangers of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl,” Donohue, of Snap, told USA TODAY.

Raising awareness, remembering a son

Since Alex’s death, Neville and her husband have made it their mission to raise awareness about the danger of fentanyl and the ease with which their son was able to acquire the illicit drug through social media.

“We rallied here in June to protest [Snap’s] lack of action and transparency,” Neville told the crowd at Friday’s rally. “We’re back at it today, and we will continue to show up.”

Congress has taken note of the potential dangers of social media to children, with a series of hearings in recent months in which representatives from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok testified on the impact of their apps on America’s kids.

At a hearing in October, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D–Minn., demanded that Snap provide more information about the automated tool it uses to search for illegal drug-related content.

“We have stepped up, and we have deployed proactive detection measures to get ahead of what the drug dealers are doing,” Jennifer Stout, vice president of global public policy at Snapchat, said in response. “They are constantly evading our tactics, not just on Snapchat, but on every platform.”

For example, dealers who find their posts consistently taken down by the company’s content moderators frequently come up with new slang terms to get past moderation tactics, Stout explained.

According to Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime, updating internet regulations and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 will be key to holding social media platforms accountable going forward.

Currently, “the platforms cannot be held liable for user generated content” as a means for “protecting free expression and free speech,” she said. As a result, Snap cannot be held accountable for content posted by dealers, and the company is not legally obligated to remove the dealers’ accounts from the platform.

“The problem with it is that selling drugs is not a matter of free expression. It's criminal conduct,” Peters said. “We think there needs to be a law to define the distinctions and make it illegal for criminal selling to take place on platforms altogether.”

Until such law is passed, Neville says she will continue to rally and seek change on behalf of her son.

“We are going to keep pushing for change until things are different or until we don’t exist anymore,” Neville said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Families want Snap to end fentanyl sales, say recent change not enough

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