Better Policing by Social Media Needed to Protect Us from Counterfeit Drugs

Social media has become inextricably integrated into everyone’s daily life. Many of us rely on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest to keep up with family and friends, connect with colleagues and old classmates, and to manage our social calendars.

But increasingly, consumers use these social media sites to identify products they want to buy, either from ads on these platforms or through direct marketing in social media posts. Consumer purchasing through this medium is so prevalent, in fact, that these platforms facilitate buying that results in billions of dollars in purchases. But just as we need to be wary of frauds in the normal retail space, consumers must be vigilant when using social media as a source of products, especially medications.

Far too often, online sellers are marketing and selling drugs illegally through social media. Searches on most platforms can bring up offers of both Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs (such as powerful opioids) and so-called “recreational drugs” such as MDMA (ecstasy). Impressionable young adults looking to mimic famed celebrities are able to purchase seemingly safe dermal fillers through social media platforms. 

The results of these counterfeit fillers can be disastrous — causing severe reactions or in the worst case, death. These kinds of sales are happening both in private group chats as well as hiding in plain sight. 

The National Consumers League has been calling out the dangers of buying drugs from illegal online sites for years. Products that purport to be authentic FDA-approved drugs may actually be counterfeits with the wrong amount (or none) of the active pharmaceutical ingredient. There is no assurance that the medications have undergone the proper handling required by federal law. 

Some counterfeits include toxic substances or heavy metals. In fact, the FDA issued warnings to multiple online pharmacies. All of these sales are illegal and present obvious and significant health risks to U.S. consumers.

These social media sites need to use their staffs’ collective brain trust and the large profits from their ads to actively and creatively police postings. Better use of artificial intelligence to identify red flags, trends and the latest frauds is essential. Once identified, the platforms must swiftly remove illegal sites and postings. 

Each platform must also make it easy for consumers to report suspicious and illegal sites to assist in identifying illegal sellers of counterfeit drugs. And tech platforms must take those reports seriously and act quickly to protect consumers. 

We know these large online platforms have the capability to successfully address this consumer danger. In fact, the FDA lauded some efforts in a press release earlier this year: “Google has begun to deindex websites named in our warning letters that cite the unlawful sale of opioids; social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have started to redirect users looking to buy opioids to a government help line. We applaud these actions. …”

But more must be done. Even today, too many bad actors are still hawking fraudulent and dangerous medicines. Too many illegal drugs are still available through social media sites, and we call upon these large tech platforms to provide greater vigilance by the companies hosting these social media sites. 


Sally Greenberg is executive director of the National Consumers League.

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