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Why are social media giants censoring life-saving information?

In early August, the Instagram page of Pill Report, one of the most popular social media pages advocating for responsible drug use, was suspended for “violating community guidelines”, as reported by MixMag.

This was not an isolated incident, as other harm reduction social media pages have also reported similar attacks. Even pages that are not specifically about drug use have had their posts removed for discussing harm reduction, prompting questions on how long social media platforms will continue to censor educational harm reduction content.

Harm reduction organisations play a key role in developing safer models of relationships that people can have with drugs. Forced to operate in the margins of the digital world, their content is frequently removed from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, as moderators conflate harm reduction materials with selling drugs or promoting their use. Dan Owns, the founder of Sesh Safety, a Facebook group that had over 50,000 members worldwide before it was deleted, said in 2018 that even when their content was tightly moderated to ensure that only harm reduction practices and user-generated advice was being shared, and that no content glorifying the use of drugs was published, they were still deactivated several times.

More insidiously, there is evidence that the digital giants are engaging in selective censorship, limiting user traffic to many drug harm reduction pages and communities. A member of Unity, a Dutch nightlife and harm reduction organisation, first reported in late 2020 that many prominent harm reduction websites have seen their websites tumble down from Google’s first search pages, impacting the number of users using their services. Google's May 2020 Core Algorithm update was noted to have caused a significant impact on the organic visibility of drugs, alcohol and rehabilitation services; the website with the biggest increase in traffic is an abstinence-based recovery platform that has no mentions of harm reduction in its content. 

Ivan Eromano, the founder of harm reduction website Drugsand.me, confirmed that “our traffic website plummeted March last year, after Google’s yearly update to their algorithm”. He added:

Google and other platforms have shown a great response to the health crisis we have been living for the last 18 months- the covid-19 pandemic. They have cooperated with governments and other organisations to tackle misinformation and boost vaccination programmes. They should take the same approach when it comes to recreational drug use.”

The easing of lockdown restrictions and reopening of the nightlife for the first time since early 2020 will likely spur a surge in drug use. A generation of young adults experimenting with club drugs for the first time, low tolerance amongst experienced users, and an urge to make up for lost partying time creates a perfect storm for drug-related harm. Combined with a legal system that continues to criminalise drug use, and clubs’ strategic silence on drug-taking within their spaces, harm reduction information is more crucial than ever.

The lack of access to such information has real, human consequences. In the first two weeks since the return of nightlife, there have already been two drug-related fatalities and other injuries. Across the country, drug-related deaths continue to rise. There has never been a more urgent time to ensure that evidence-based and life-saving information reaches the widest possible audience to reduce unnecessary tragedy.

Social media is a key platform for disseminating harm reduction content, yet they have stayed quiet on this issue for too long. There is already a wider ongoing conversation on the role that social media companies have in determining what information people can access on their platforms, in which TalkingDrugs has already participated. The UK’s Digital Secretary has noted that social media companies can arbitrarily block or silence their users, “giving tech companies vast power over one of our core democratic rights, freedom of expression”. The right to access realistic and non-judgemental harm reduction information must be a part of this conversation.

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