Shady distributors are using social platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to hawk their appearance and performance enhancing drugs (APEDs) — and those platforms’ recommendation algorithms are helping their sales, according a new study from nonprofit internet safety org Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA).
The study, published this week, was a deep-dive investigation into how people disseminate drugs like steroids and unregulated, potentially unsafe doses of hormones like testosterone online. Per DCA, one-third of APEDs are now bought online, so it was interested in tracking down where exactly these sales are being made.
At the start of the study, investigators working with DCA (a coalition of internet experts, consumers, and businesses that regularly releases reports about concerning trends and material online) began with simple Google searches like “Where to buy illegal steroids.” That search led them to pages on various social platforms, including an apparently now defunct YouTube channel called Steroids Corner that uploaded videos with brash titles like Buy Testosterone Enanthate 250mg Online, Anabolic Steroids For Sale. Their videos’ titles also included a contact number linked to an account on messaging service WhatsApp.
Over on Facebook, an investigator found one page aimed at bodybuilders offered them somatropin, a hormone DCA reports is generally used to treat growth failure in kids. Investigators also recorded screenshots of people using Facebook Messenger to advise one another about what to do if their illegal drugs were seized in transit. DCA’s report additionally chronicles instances of Instagram and Twitter being used to sell APEDs, with suppliers using hashtags to spread links to websites where consumers can purchase the drugs.
DCA found it especially concerning that platforms’ recommendation algorithms, particularly YouTube’s, Facebook’s, and Instagram’s, recognized their search activity and began promoting content that showed where to buy illegal APEDs, even after they’d stopped looking at APED-related content.
One investigator whose remarks were included in the report said that when he was “no longer searching for steroids, steroids were searching for him.”
To anyone paying attention to news about digital platforms, that likely sounds familiar. The past year has seen multiple incidents exemplifying social sites’ struggle to contain the spread of dangerous content, and the struggle to keep their recommendation algorithms from promoting said content just because it’s popular. YouTube in particular has issues on its plate similar to the kind of seedy underbelly the DCA investigated. Along with, apparently, a drug-sales problem, YouTube has a documented issue getting rid of videos and comments fetishizing young children. Like the APED sellers, people who post those videos target consumers with keywords like “young” and “swimsuit” and “gymnastics,” and once viewers are drawn into the “wormhole” of videos purposefully intended to display children in bikinis or leotards, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm takes over, feeding them more and more of the same.
DCA also noted that, like with the wormhole, YouTube is undeniably aware that APED sellers use its platform, but the content is still circulating. DCA knows YouTube is aware because it already challenged YouTube over steroid videos once, six years ago.
“In 2013, DCA and The Taylor Hooten Foundation researchers found dozens of videos on YouTube demonstrating how to acquire and use APEDs,” the organization wrote in its study report. “A broadcast news story on the DCA/THF report forced YouTube (and its parent company Google) to take down the videos. But, six years later, not only are the videos back on YouTube, they are showing up on other platforms as well.”
Ultimately, DCA is advocating for YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms to “step up and take responsibility for how their sites are used.”
“And if they don’t,” the report adds, “they must be held accountable.”
You can read the full report here.