Share with Caution: How Social Media Fuels Moral Panic over Drug Use

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Viral posts on social media are spreading false and stigmatising stories about people who use drugs, further marginalising vulnerable groups.

In March 2019, a Facebook user in the US recently posted an image of a toilet paper roll in a public bathroom with a few red dots on it, warning people that someone had stuck a used needle into the roll in an attempt to clean off blood. The post implied that the blood could contain infectious diseases, which could then be picked up by someone who ended up using said toilet paper. The person posting claimed to have learned about this alleged tactic for cleaning needles from taking a Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response class operated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the US.

OSHA have, however, denied knowledge of this supposed practice. Additionally, a spokesperson from the Washington State Department of Health stated that they were also unaware of such practices, noting:

“We have never heard of this. This practice seems extremely unlikely because the tip of the needle could break off if one tried to stab it through a toilet paper roll. I’m not sure why someone would risk that if what they wanted was to use the same needle for another shot. Logically it would be much easier to wipe off the tip with some toilet paper rather than stabbing it through the roll.”

This is a classic example of a moral panic being fuelled by social media, and it resulting in the public becoming further distrusting of – or even angry towards – people who use drugs in public settings. This is particularly dangerous as people who use drugs in public, without a safe space at home in which to do so, are likely homeless or from other marginalised backgrounds; increasing stigma towards them can push them further from mainstream society, thereby further entrenching barriers to support or treatment.

Much like media hysteria around the use of synthetic stimulants, such posts fail to contextualise information about individuals who inject drugs in public spaces. This demonises people instead of shedding light on why they may be using drugs in such environments, and without exploring how evidence-based approaches could decrease public drug use.

Discarded needles used for drug consumption are undoubtedly a genuine health risk for the public, but demonising people who publicly dispose of them is not the answer. A key way to address this issue is with drug consumption rooms (DCRs), where people can inject drugs in a safe environment, with sterile equipment, in the presence of trained professionals, and with safe disposal boxes. Similarly, Needle-Syringe Programmes (NSPs) provide people with new, sterile injecting equipment in exchange for their used needles – so they have no need to reuse or attempt to clean equipment after use.

Sharing misinformation on social media about vulnerable people who use drugs may bring about more harm than good. While the intention of the unverified post seems unclear, it was successful in causing panic, as the post was shared by thousands expressing their discontent. Instead of sharing posts which fuel panic and stigma, it is far more conducive to public good to publish constructive posts about evidence-based policies and harm reduction.