Drug addiction and problematic use are complicated concerns that affect millions of individuals all over the world. In the midst of the campaign for drug decriminalisation and harm reduction, there’s an evident interest in utilising social media, and its widespread accessibility, to ensure that HR information is able to reach as many folks as possible. Alongside other digital tools, social media based HR has the potential to do a whole lot of good, but it’s still important for us to recognise what works online, what doesn’t, and what could be improved.
“This era of digital technology is huge and has so much to offer in terms of really spreading the gospel of harm reduction,” Sessi Blanchard, an activist and harm reduction worker, told TalkingDrugs. “Online resources and communities have really allowed us to kind of put all of our heads together and come up with and share practices and techniques that we’ve developed, you know, just as a matter of using and keeping ourselves and each other safe.”
Blanchard cites the popularity of online harm reduction spaces, like Reddit’s harm reduction forum and Bluelight, an old-school platform to discuss harm reduction and buy drug testing kits, as evidence of the internet’s power in supporting people who use drugs. Anyone with a smartphone can use apps or access online forums from anywhere in the world. Their widespread availability can lessen the harms surrounding drug use.
Blanchard particularly highlights the effectiveness of simply DMing folks to connect in a more personal way. “For example on Twitter, people who you know are doing interesting things offline and then sharing information and providing perspectives online that are interesting or provoking and challenging assumptions or norms,” Blanchard explained. “I really do think sliding into DMs is potentially the best, most transformative resource.”
Social media is an obvious way to increase harm reduction’s reach and impact. TikTok increasingly hosts harm reduction influencers sharing harm reduction tips with millions of views already. Their community guidelines even explicitly advocate for “the reform of drug policies and regulations”.
Dr. Benjamin Boyce, from the University of Colorado’s Department of Communications, believes that digital technologies can boost harm reduction efforts, especially through social media. Like everything else that goes “viral”, harm reduction services and meme-based messages (use isn’t failure; you can choose your own recovery, etc.) will expose a much larger audience to options for support and recovery that they didn’t know existed.
“Social media is a powerful tool for promoting harm reduction practices. I think that digital technology is going to pave a new pathway forward in harm reduction efforts,” Dr. Boyce explained. “Some time in the near future we will presumably have a ‘coming-to-God’ moment culturally and realise we’ve misunderstood addiction and need to rethink our approach to ‘treatment’.”
Dr. Boyce’s podcast, The Dr. Junkie Show, which gives information and tools on harm reduction strategies, is an example of how different types of digital media can be a strong tool to promote harm reduction techniques.
“From Dance Safe’s Drug Positive, to ‘The Peace on Drugs Podcast, to my own podcast,” Boyce said there’s plenty out there to inform and entertain. “The trick with podcasts is to find one that aligns with your goals and concerns. Find one that speaks your language.”
“By utilising digital media, we can engage people in an interactive and informative manner, which can help to promote harm reduction practices and reduce the harms correlated with drug use,” he explained.
The ability of digital media to allow anonymous and confidential access to harm reduction materials is one possible benefit for harm reduction. Users are able to connect with content and other people (relatively) safely and privately, letting them benefit from service without too much exposure. Because of continued stigma and criminalisation of drug use in certain countries, many people who use drugs may be hesitant to seek help. Digital technology can be a safe way to access harm reduction resources without revealing incriminating details.
Boyce mentioned The Brave App as pivotal in harm reduction efforts. “It connects drug users to one another, or to volunteers who might not be using, to provide support during use,” explains Boyce. “If someone stops responding or appears to be having a medical emergency, ‘friends’ on the Brave App can alert authorities.” BuddyUp in the UK provides a similar service
According to Boyce, TripApp is also a good tool for finding fast and digestible drug information, as well as tips on dealing with challenging experiences. HarmLess exists to track drug-related urges, use patterns and set improvement goals.”We are currently in a bit of a ‘gold rush’ of app-provided services, including medical services,” he said.
Even though digital technology has the promise of improving harm reduction efforts, it also has limitations and difficulties to consider. The lack of quality oversight of content is one. Some online resources may encourage unsafe practices or provide inaccurate information. Apps are also constrained by developer and community guidelines, which dictate what can be offered in these products. Apps determined to be “promoting drug use”, which harm reduction is frequently perceived as, may be taken down. As a result, some hiding and masking of messages must happen, which may compromise the quality of the advice provided.
Another issue is the digital gap, which refers to unequal access to digital technology and the internet. Many drug users, notably those from marginalised groups or from lower-income countries, may not have smartphones or reliable internet access. As a result, it is critical to consider how digital interventions can reach those that struggle with access.
“Internet communities and digital platforms have done so much, but we need to be actively pushing back against the ease of online communication as the first arrangement. Otherwise it will exist at the loss of in-person relationships, organising and power building,” warns Blanchard.
Blanchard said she is most concerned by government surveillance and the looming threat of criminalisation.
“With online harm reduction communities sharing tips and tricks and support, speaking about their own experiences online about things that are criminalised, there’s a big risk that that could be used against you,” Blanchard worried. “Police could use that as leads or as evidence to bring prosecutions.”
While digital technology allows for anonymous connection to harm reduction resources, it also poses privacy and security risks. Users may be surveilled by government agencies or law enforcement, compromising their privacy and potentially leading to arrest. Online harm reduction resources must ensure their users’ data is as safeguarded as possible. Strong data encryption, and minimal identifiable data collection, should be standard practice. Users should also have control over their data, including the option to opt out or delete it entirely. Ultimately, legal protections should be developed to ensure that information shared to access potentially life-saving drug-related advice should be protected from incriminating users of illegal activities, akin to Good Samaritan Laws.
In a nutshell, digital technology offers the opportunity to assist harm reduction initiatives by providing a broad audience with access to harm reduction materials, facilitating anonymous use of resources, and communicating with persons in a fun and interactive way. It is vital that digital harm reduction tools remain evidence-based, peer-reviewed, and secure in order to preserve users’ privacy. If harm reduction organisers collaborate with digital developers, they can build a universe of safer online and offline interventions.