WASHINGTON, September 16, 2019 -- Americans who rely on illegal and potentially dangerous appearance and performance enhancing drugs to improve their physical appearance or step up their athletic performance are aided by drug dealers, Facebook and Google, according to a Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) / Global Intellectual Property Enforcement Center Worldwide (GIPEC) investigation.
The report – “Digital Platforms on Steroids” – presents the results of a six-month investigation that shows that millions of Americans have resorted to the use of appearance and performance enhancing drugs (APEDs), aided by drug dealers who advertise the sale of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone online while digital platforms seemingly turn a blind eye.
The investigation looked at the scope of use of APEDs and the ease of buying them from online suppliers. A Digital Citizens research survey found that 1 in 10 Americans reported using the drugs at one time. As part of its inquiry, DCA purchased drugs from a China-based dealer who promoted them on Facebook. After professional testing of the samples, one was in fact an anabolic steroid while another labeled as human growth hormone (HGH) was fake.
“Thanks to Facebook and Google, a teen’s drug supplier is located in their phone, tablet or computer,”said Tom Galvin, executive director of DCA. “Digital platforms seem to only take down illegal and/or illicit content when it becomes a PR problem, not for the good of their users. Whether a street corner or an online site, criminals tend to go where it’s easiest. And the proliferation of APEDs is being made easier by the unwillingness of digital platforms to take the issue seriously.”
This is the second time that Digital Citizens has found APEDs for sale on social media platforms. A 2013 DCA report on YouTube videos pushing and demonstrating APED usage led to the take down of dozens those videos.
"It is disappointing and frustrating that we are still finding large-scale sales of illegal APEDs on these social media platforms six years after we first identified the illicit activity,” said Eric Feinberg, the co-founder of GIPEC. “Social media advertising algorithms are driving users directly to drug dealers. We didn’t have to spend very long looking for steroids because the platforms’ algorithms enabled the operators of suggested pages and videos of illegal steroids to find us."
The DCA / GIPEC investigation found:
- For several years, APED sellers have used Facebook pages to market and sell drugs. In at least one instance, Facebook allowed a “Shop Now” button which enabled users to make drug purchases. On another page targeting bodybuilders, sellers offered Somatropin, a human growth hormone (HGH) used to treat growth failure in children.
- Numerous YouTube videos promote the sale of APEDs, among them “Steroids Corner,” a group selling the drugs that use a Whatsapp number as the point of contact.
- Facebook offered “Suggested Pages” that promoted access to APEDs. These suggestions often were placed on other Facebook group pages related to sports. In one case, Facebook suggested steroid dealers next to content from the Taylor Hooton Foundation, a group dedicated to alerting the public to the dangers of APEDs.
- APED dealers in some cases also offered access to opioids, drugs that have fueled an epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in the last decade.
"Young people face enormous pressure, whether it's to look better, to get a scholarship to pay for college or live up to the unrealistic image of friends, celebrities and influencers on social media. Some seek a shortcut by using APEDs that offer the promise to play and look better,” said Don Hooton, Executive Chairman of the Taylor Hooton Foundation. “These substances carry dangerous risks that can have tragic results. Our efforts to help our nation's youth steer clear of these risks are undermined when digital platforms such as Facebook and Google make it easy to acquire these substances online. These companies must be held accountable for this behavior and must take active steps immediately to cease enabling the sale of these substances via their platforms. NOW!”
While steroid and HGH use in the past was fueled by a desire to improve athletic performance, the research shows that enhanced appearance is now a key driver for use. The July 2019 DCA survey of 2,417 Americans found:
- 1 in 10 respondents admitted to taking steroids. 13 percent of males and 8 percent of females had taken the harmful drugs.
- When asked the reason for taking APEDs, 52 percent respondents said they took APEDs to “improve physical appearance” compared to 35 percent who said it was to “improve athletic performance.”
- More than 1 in 3 (35 percent) of those who purchased APEDs said they got them online.
- 37 percent of those respondents who took steroids or HGH started when they were 24 or younger with 10 percent were under the age of 18 at first use.
- 63 percent of respondents who admitted to using steroids or HGH said they experienced side effects or health issues consistent with the use of such drugs.
The Digital Citizens Alliance is a nonprofit, 501(c)(6) organization that is a consumer- oriented coalition focused on educating the public and policymakers on the threats that consumers face on the Internet. Digital Citizens wants to create a dialogue on the importance for Internet stakeholders— individuals, government and industry—to make the Web a safer place. Based in Washington, DC, the Digital Citizens Alliance counts among its supporters: private citizens, the health, pharmaceutical and creative industries as well as online safety experts and other communities focused on Internet safety. Visit us at www.digitalcitizensalliance.org.
The Global Intellectual Property Enforcement Center Worldwide is a cyber intelligence company that uses patented tools to interrogate the deep web and social media. To learn more about GIPEC visit www.gipec.com.