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House Roundtable Hears Testimony About Role of Social Media in Selling Deadly Drugs

Social media, Snapchat in particular, may be making it easier for young people to purchase lethal pills, a congressional roundtable was told on Jan. 25.

Snapchat is known for an app that automatically deletes messages after the receiver reads them, making it possible for drug dealers to take advantage of that feature, witnesses said during the hearing.

Amy Neville, a mother whose teenage son died after taking a counterfeit pill allegedly purchased on Snapchat, told the Committee that her son thought he was getting a prescription painkiller.

“One sunny day in June of 2020, I was preparing to take my 14-year-old son, Alexander, to the orthodontist. I went to his room to wake him, and there he lay, looking like he was just asleep on his bean bag chair—except he wasn’t sleeping. Alex was dead,” the mother said.

“His father tried CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation], the paramedics tried naloxone, but it was too late. Alex had taken a pill he believed to be OxyContin, [but it] turned out that it was a counterfeit pill made with fentanyl,” she continued, “that fake pill had enough fentanyl in it to kill four people.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, naloxone works as an antidote to heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid medication, reversing their effects if administered in time.

Neville said Snapchat allowed her son to expand his group of friends, which opened the possibility of trying different drugs that wouldn’t be available in his usual circle of friends. She told the roundtable that her son arranged with the dealer to deliver pills to their home address and picked them up while sneaking a few minutes out of the house.

“Snap and other social media companies are free of liability for this behavior on their platform because our laws were written to protect them,” the mother said, adding that she hoped they would be held accountable.

Epoch Times Photo
Family and friends of people who died after taking pills containing fentanyl carry signs as they protest near the Snap, Inc. headquarters, makers of the Snapchat social media application in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 4, 2021. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Carrie Goldberg, a victim’s rights attorney, met with many families whose children died as result of taking fentanyl-laced pills. She said that fentanyl poisoning had three things in common: the purchaser was a teenager; the buyer had no intention of obtaining fentanyl but believed they were getting something recreational, and the transaction took place over Snapchat.

“Big Tech has many problems, but the lethal fentanyl sales is not a general Big Tech problem. It’s a Snap specific problem,” said Goldberg. “Snap’s product is designed specifically to attract both children and elicit adult activity.”

She explained that besides Snapchat’s feature to delete communication after it is read by the recipient, the app also has a money transfer feature, enabling drug transactions without a trace. Moreover, drug dealers post ads, Goldberg continued, allowing them to reach teens through an unknown algorithm.

“We must require that the highest executives account for the activities on their platforms that have enabled kids to buy fentanyl-laced drugs and die,” Goldberg said.

Attorney Laura Marquez-Garrett, of the Social Media Victims Law Center, said that although Snapchat says it invests in content moderation, it also says it has no legal obligation to moderate content owing to the Section 230 argument.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 holds one accountable for online actions and statements but not those of others. The act prohibits most legal charges against users or services based on others’ statements.

“We now represent more than 47 families whose children have been harmed or have died because of fentanyl poisoning—43 of those 47 children are dead. Almost half of those children were under the age of 18, as young as the age of 13,” Marquez-Garrett said.

There will be no solution for parents to gain access and be aware of what happens on Snapchat, she said, “unless these companies actively provide mechanisms to help parents.”

“With drug dealers now using social media to distribute their product on platforms used by children, it’s critical that Congress holds these organizations accountable,” Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) said in a statement.

The roundtable was hosted by the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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