On the evening of Feb. 7 Santa Monica teen Sammy Berman Chapman asked his dad for a cheeseburger and went to his bedroom. An hour later his mother found him dead on the floor.
Sammy was killed by a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid 50 times as powerful as heroin. The culprit: a drug dealer on Snapchat and, from the parents’ perspective, the company Snap itself, which they said was not doing enough to protect young users like Sammy.
His story is not an outlier. According to the CDC, synthetic opioids were responsible for over 57,000 thousand deaths in 2020. Many of these deaths came from counterfeit painkillers known as “fentapills” that individuals were unaware they were taking.
On June 4. Sammy’s parents protested outside of Snap Inc.’s Santa Monica headquarters, alongside several other families who lost loved ones to fentapills sold on the platform, and demanded the company take a tougher stance against drug dealers. Among the protesters were the parents and sister of Orange County teen Alexander Neville, who died from a fentanyl-laced Oxycontin pill in June 2020 at just 14 years old.
At the time Snapchat said it was wholeheartedly committed to addressing this issue and on Oct. 7 released a statement outlining the steps it is taking to prevent illegal drug sales on its platform.
Snap is attacking the problem in three directions. The company has launched an outreach campaign to educate users on the dangers of fentanyl; improved detection and removal of drug dealers on its platform; and expanded its team that works with law enforcement.
“Continuing to significantly improve our operational work to eradicate drug dealers from Snapchat, along with raising awareness of the dangers of fentanyl and other illicit drugs, will be a long term effort for us — we will keep working to do better and help keep our community safe,” said a Snapchat spokesperson.
Although the company has ramped up its efforts, Snapchat alongside other social media apps is fighting an uphill battle to address the fentanyl crisis, which is growing by the day.
The synthetic opioid is incredibly potent and very cheap to produce, which has led to it being trafficked in mass amounts across the Mexican border.
The amount of fentanyl seized by Customs and Border Patrol agents this fiscal year has more than doubled compared to last fiscal year. In FY 2019 2,804 lbs were seized, in FY 2020 that number grew to 4,791 lbs and in FY 2021 it reached 10,469 lbs — and this doesn’t include the month of September, for which data is not yet available.
“What we’re seeing is an unbelievable rise in fentanyl coming into the United States,” said James Carroll, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “What we’re also seeing in the past year, is really a dramatic rise also in fentanyl being put in other drugs.”
According to Carroll, traffickers lace drugs with fentanyl to make them cheaper to produce and more addictive.
“You have to remember the traffickers do not have an addiction to drugs, the traffickers have an addiction to greed,” said Carroll.
Fentapills pose a pointed danger because they often look identical to prescription pills and the fentanyl contained in them can be lethal in quantities as small as one grain of sand. While in the past it might have taken a drug user months or years of addiction to die from an overdose, first-time users can now fatally overdose from a single pill.
The interaction of the dangers of fentanyl with the ease of access through social media is making makes this drug crisis especially deadly and difficult to eradicate.
Social media provides a convenient way for dealers to peddle their drugs and has opened access to a new demographic of young adults, who during the pandemic have been suffering from especially high rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Social media also makes it difficult to identify dealers who hide behind online aliases. While companies can delete a dealer’s account, it is challenging to prevent them from popping up under a new handle.
“We have to stop thinking about it as a war on drugs, it’s more like a chess match; the cartels and the dealers are getting more and more sophisticated with their knowledge of technology, synthetic chemistry and supply chain economics,” said Ed Ternan, whose 20-year-old son Charlie Ternan died in May 2020 from a fentapill sold on Snapchat.
In the wake of Charlie’s death, Ed and his wife Mary Ternan founded the organization Song for Charlie to raise awareness about fentapills. Many parents who lost children to fentanyl have also become involved in advocacy. Amy and Aaron Neville founded the Alexander Neville foundation, and Laura Berman and Sam Chapman have gotten involved in legislative efforts.
While all parents share the same ultimate goal, they have different ideas about the best solutions and are tackling the problem from different angles.
Chapman does not feel like Snapchat’s efforts to protect its young users are meaningful.
“The meaningful part would be a reduction in drug dealing or a reduction in child sex crimes and bullying, and the things that really hurt our kids, and that’s not what we’re seeing,” said Chapman.
Chapman is a proponent of 3rd party parental monitoring software and said he is working with members of congress to try and develop a law that would require this software be allowed on apps with minors such as Snapchat, TikTok and Discord.
According to a Snapchat spokesperson, the company is currently developing its own parental tools. Snapchat is not integrated with any 3rd party parental monitoring software at this time.
Currently, the leading 3rd party parental monitoring software is called Bark. There have been several issues raised in the media about this company and other parent monitoring software companies including privacy concerns, questions over accuracy in detecting dangerous behavior and worries about the risks children might face if their activity is exposed to parents.
As opposed to tacking the issue through legislation, Ternan and the Song for Charlie organization are focused on spreading a message of warning and partnered with Snapchat to create a PSA. Both Snap and Ternan believe risk education is a key component to fighting this battle, given the overall lack of knowledge on fentanyl among youth.
A nationally representative survey of youth conducted by Snapchat found that only 37 percent of young Americans consider fentanyl extremely dangerous compared to 61 percent who consider heroin extremely dangerous and 50 percent who consider cocaine extremely dangerous. At the same time, 15 percent of Gen Zers said that they had abused prescription pills and 40 percent said they know a peer who has done so, while only around 2-in-5 Gen Zers knew fentanyl was used in counterfeit pills.
The Song for Charlie Snapchat video has now been viewed over 260 million times and through the partnership Ternan has come to believe that the company is “100 percent committed” to solving the problem.
“Of course we were angry at first and we had to get past our anger,” said Ternan, adding that he is not critical or judgmental of grieving parents who hold different views on Snapchat. “We said to ourselves, we can consider them an adversary, but what kind of impact could we have if we could make them our ally?”
Also under the umbrella of educational outreach, Snapchat has created an in-app information portal called Heads Up, which appears when users search substance use related words. The company is rolling out a new filter that talks about the dangers of fentapills and directs users to Heads Up. Additionally, the Snap Original news show Good Luck America has a series of episodes focused on the fentanyl crisis.
Amy Neville of the Alexander Neville Foundation welcomes the educational efforts Snapchat has made on the app, but said she thinks the app should be doing more to educate parents about the risks their children face as users.
“The fact is people are dying and we really need to hit that home, and again we need to get that outside of the platform,” said Neville, adding that most parents aren’t on Snapchat and won’t see the in-app PSAs. “As a mom I need to hear the radio commercial when I’m driving my kids to school or see the billboard.”
Another key part of Snapchat’s updated strategies to address the fentanyl crisis is improved detection and enforcement of drug dealing activity.
Snapchat reported that its enforcement rates increased by 112 percent during the first half of 2021 and its proactive detection rates by 260 percent. Around two thirds of drug-related content is flagged by Snapchat’s artificial intelligence systems, which are built to detect images, code words and emojis connected to drugs. The other third of drug activities are reported manually and then responded to by Snapchat.
Snapchat currently partners with public health technology start-up S-3 Research to track down Snapchat drug dealers across other social media platforms. According to S-3 CEO and Co-Founder Tim Mackey, drug dealers will often utilize several platforms to sell their goods. For example, they might advertise products on Instagram or TikTok and complete the deal on Snapchat direct message.
S-3 uses its AI technologies to scrub for drug related activity on public areas of social media platforms and will then see if that user has a Snapchat username listed anywhere. S-3 will check if that Snapchat user is active and, if so, give that information to Snapchat, who will proceed with enforcement measures.
“Snap is one of those companies that’s honestly come to us and said ‘tell us what we’re missing, tell us how we can do better,’ and I don’t think that’s just lip service, I actually think that they are, as a younger company, looking for expertise outside and that’s been very refreshing,” said Mackey.
Mackey said it has been challenging to pitch his business to social media companies as it provides little benefit to them from a purely business standpoint. Companies who utilize S-3 risk discovering that the dangerous activity on their platform problem is far worse than they thought and may end up losing users by cracking down on illicit behavior. S-3 Research is currently funded through the federal government.
Sam Chapman had a related complaint about 3rd party parental monitoring software. While he acknowledges that Bark, the leader in the field, is imperfect, he said that if social media companies were more open to allowing 3rd party parental monitoring, the market would grow and improve significantly.
In addition to increased outreach and detection, the final strategy Snapchat is working on is improved collaboration with law enforcement.
Snapchat reported that is has grown its team that provides information to law enforcement requests and approved their response times by 85 percent year over year. According to Snap, its 24/7 team typically responds within 30 minutes in the case of an emergency disclosure request.
A representative for the Santa Monica Police Department stated that the department’s relationship with Snapchat is collaborative and that it has received all the information it requested from Snapchat in the past.
Over the last year SMPD’s Special Investigation Unit has subpoenaed Snapchat to support four investigations related to drug sales and overdoses cases. In cases such as these SMPD typically requests to see the usernames and messages exchanged between the involved parties.
According to Public Information Officer Rudy Flores, this information is helpful for analyzing patterns of behavior, other criminal activity related to the crime under investigation and the relationship between those involved.
In the case of Sammy Berman Chapman’s tragic death, no information is available on the identity of the drug dealer.