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Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram face pressure to stop illegal drug sales as overdose deaths soar

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SAN FRANCISCO — Amy Neville lost her son last year after he took a pill made with fentanyl. Alex, 14 years old, connected with a drug dealer on social media app Snapchat to buy the pills, she said.

She has since protested outside Snap’s headquarters and called on the company in a letter signed by six other parents to set up an external committee of law enforcement representatives, parents and public health experts to review the company’s progress.

Snap responded to the parents in writing, saying it was committed to stopping drug trafficking on its platform. But that’s unsatisfactory, Neville says.

“As long as people are dying, it’s not enough,” she said.

Federal officials agree. This week, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about the increase of fake pills bought online that include fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be fatal in small doses. In an interview, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram specifically called out Snapchat and TikTok, two apps that are popular with teenagers and young adults, for not doing more to combat sales, and said that the agency was going to go to social media companies with specific demands.

But it’s not yet clear what those demands will be or how they might help. For years, illegal drug sales have been a scourge on Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and other social media apps. Companies have repeatedly said they’re working to rid their sites of drug deals by hiring extra moderators, using artificial-intelligence algorithms to root out illegal material and limiting searches for keywords related to drugs. But prescription and other drugs can still easily be found for sale.

More than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States last year, a surge of nearly 30 percent from the year before.

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The public health crisis is renewing calls from not just law enforcement groups but concerned parents and researchers for the social media companies to do more. They want the companies to be more transparent about what’s happening on their platforms, to share more data with each other to help catch drug dealers who jump between apps and increase parental controls parents can keep tabs on what their kids are doing online.

Marc Berkman, chief executive of the Organization for Social Media Safety, said the nonprofit ran an informal test and found they were able to connect with drug dealers on multiple social media sites in under three minutes. A March report from the Digital Citizens Alliance, a consumer watchdog group, and Coalition for a Safer Web showed how Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and YouTube videos were used to promote drugs, in some instances to thousands of followers or viewers.

Facebook spokeswoman Avra Siegel said in a statement that the company doesn’t allow people to buy or sell drugs on its sites. It plans to join the nonprofit Partnership to End Addiction on Wednesday to work on a series of public service announcements about opioid addiction, she said.

Snap spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an email that the company strictly prohibits drug-related activity and fights it, as well as supporting law enforcement in investigations. The company also promotes videos about the dangers of drugs to teens who use its app.

TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said in a statement it also removes accounts that promote illegal drug sales, using both technology and human reviewers to find and evaluate the violative material. TikTok blocks searches of some drug-related terms, instead directing users to its policies. It redirected a search term Monday after a Washington Post inquiry regarding drug-related content it surfaced.

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Some researchers acknowledge the difficulty of the problem. The sheer scale of information on the platforms is hard to police, and algorithms can do only so much. Drug dealers can use strange fonts or edit photos advertising drugs in ways that can trick image-recognition algorithms, creating an arms race between drug sellers and the social media companies.

“You see a lot more sophistication, a lot more aggressive moderation evasion,” said Tim Mackey, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego and who runs a research start-up that has helped companies including Snap detect illegal online activity.

There’s more that the companies can do though, Mackey said, including investing more in training the artificial-intelligence algorithms that search for and remove drug advertisements. The companies should also share information on accounts that try to sell drugs, he said. Social media companies have done that in the past to identify and take down terrorist accounts, but they’re often hesitant to do it in other areas because of privacy concerns.

But many of the drug deals are taking place across platforms, Berkman said. For example, people may connect with drug dealers online on one site, then message with them on a second site and purchase pills on a third.

Purchasing drugs through social media is “as easy as ordering a pizza,” Berkman said.

Some parents are demanding companies provide better ways to oversee their children‘s social media accounts.

Sam Chapman said he and his wife, television host and relationship therapist Laura Berman, call themselves “accidental activists.” Their 16-year-old son Sammy died in February after taking drugs he bought online which contained fentanyl.

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Sammy met the drug dealer on Snapchat, Chapman said, where he was “presented a colorful menu designed for kids.”

“We thought sexting was all you had to worry about, but it’s much worse,” Chapman said. “It’s child sex slavery, it’s drugs, it’s bullying.”

Chapman and Berman are now working with the Organization for Social Media Safety on a bill for Congress that would require social media sites to integrate with parent monitoring software. The type of software allows parents to get alerts when their kids interact with concerning or illegal content online.

Some privacy advocates say these monitoring tools can actually hurt kids, for example by outing children who are gay to their parents and potentially exposing them to homophobic abuse. A Vice News investigation this year found that some child-monitoring software doesn’t work as well as it’s advertised.

But parents say it could help save children from harm. Chapman said they have asked Snapchat to allow one type of monitoring software to work on its site, but the company told him they had concerns about user privacy.

“We’re trying to protect from criminals, and they’re talking about privacy,” he said.

Snapchat is building its own parental control tools, said the company’s Racusen.

“Our goal is to deliver solutions that work effectively and reliably without compromising the security and data privacy of our community,” she said.

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5 apps for scheduling Instagram posts on iPhone and Android

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Alright, we get it. You’re an Instagram Nostradamus.

You know exactly what you want to post and when you’re gonna want to post it. Maybe there’s a meme or comment you want to make that you know will be totally relevant for a future moment or event. Or it could be that you’re an influencer and you want to make sure you keep a steady stream of content coming, so you want to schedule posts for times when you know you won’t be active (or won’t have internet access).

You’ll be happy to know there are apps that are specialized for just such situations. So listen up, InstaNostradamuses…Instagrostra…Instadam…Insta…uh…you guys (we’ll workshop it. No we won’t. We’ll probably just abandon that effort completely. You’re welcome) — these are the Instagram-post-scheduling apps for you.

While all of the iPhone apps below are free to download, they all have some in-app purchases.

1. Planoly

PLANOLY

We’ll start with “official partner” of Instagram, itself, Planoly — an Instaplanner that uses a grid to let you plan, schedule, and publish posts (as well as Reels) on Instagram. The app also lets you see post metrics and analytics so you can make sure your post didn’t flop.

Planoly is available for iOS on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store for Android.

2. Buffer

BufferCredit: buffer / app store

Buffer is another Instagram post scheduler that helps you plan your posts and analyze feedback once they’re published. Use a calendar view to drag and drop posts into days/time slots for easy scheduling.

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Buffer is available for iOS on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store for Android.

3. Preview

PreviewCredit: preview / app store

Preview offers typical post-scheduling tools and analytics along with a few helpful extras. Get caption ideas, recommendations for hashtags, and more.

Preview is available for iOS on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store for Android.

4. Content Office

Content OfficeCredit: content office / app store

An Instagram post scheduler with a visual boost, Content Office allows users to plan and schedule Instagram posts while learning “marketing and visual guides to grow your brand on Instagram.” Like aesthetics and using visuals to create cohesive themes? Maybe this is the Instaplanner for you.

Content Office is available for iOS on the Apple App Store.

5. Plann

PlannCredit: plann / apple store

You’ll never guess what “Plann” lets you do…

Aside from scheduling posts, get content ideas and recommendations, as well as strategy tips to ensure you’re maximizing your Instagram engagement. Ever wonder when the best time to post something is? Plann can offer you some help with that.

Plann is available for iOS on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store for Android.

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Social networking websites launch features to encourage users to get boosters

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Facebook Instagram and TikTok are launching new features to encourage people to get their coronavirus booster jabs.

From Friday, users will be able to update their profiles with frames or stickers to show that they have had their top-up jab or aim to when they become eligible.

It follows on from people previously being able to show they have had their first and second jabs on certain social networking websites and apps.

TikTok also held a “grab a jab” event in London earlier this year.

I urge everyone who is eligible – don’t delay, get your vaccine or top up jab today to protect yourself and your loved ones

More than 16 million booster vaccines have now been given across the UK.

People who are aged 40 and above and received their second dose of their vaccine at least six months ago are currently eligible to have their booster.

A new campaign advert is also being launched on Friday, which shows how Covid-19 can build up in enclosed spaces and how to prevent that from happening.

Vaccines minister Maggie Throup said:  “Getting your booster is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your family this winter.

“It is fantastic to see some of the biggest household names further back the phenomenal vaccine rollout, allowing their users to proudly display that they have played their part in helping us build a wall of defence across the country.

“I urge everyone who is eligible – don’t delay, get your vaccine or top-up jab today to protect yourself and your loved ones.”

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How many hashtags should you use to get the most ‘Likes’ on Instagram?

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Hashtags are a key feature of Instagram posts. In fact, they have become an essential means of ensuring more ‘Likes’ on social media – so long as you choose them wisely.

But how many hashtags should you use to maximise your popularity on the social network? The answer might surprise you.

It’s a question that many Instagram users ask themselves: what’s the right number of hashtags to add to a post? To find out, the Later platform analysed 18 million Instagram posts, excluding videos, Reels and Stories.

Interestingly, Later’s results differ from Instagram’s own recommendations. According to Later’s analysis, using more hashtags helps get better results in terms of “reach”, or the percentage of users exposed to the post. By using 20 hashtags, Later observed an optimal average reach rate of just under 36%. Using 30 hashtags gets the next-best reach rate. With five hashtags, reach hits just under 24%.

And while a post’s reach is important, engagement is even more so. From “Likes” and comments to shares and follows – on average, 30 hashtags appears to result in better engagement rates: “When it comes to average engagement rate, using 30 Instagram hashtags per feed post results in the most likes and comments,” says Later’s research.

Yet, at the end of September 2021, Instagram advised its creators to use between three and five hashtags for their posts, while warning them against using too many. The social network advised that using 10 to 20 hashtags per post “will not help you get additional distribution”.

For Later, there could be other reasons behind Instagram’s recommendations: “As Instagram continues to expand their discoverability and SEO tools, it makes sense that they want users to experiment with fewer, more relevant hashtags – this could help them accurately categorise and recommend your posts in suggested content streams, like the Instagram Reels feed or the updated hashtag search tabs,” the website explains. – AFP Relaxnews

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