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Facebook, Twitter and Google team up to form an AI-powered anti-drug coalition

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Social media giants Facebook and Twitter, along with tech titan Google, have banded together to form an anti-drug coalition.

The resulting partnership goes by the catchy moniker, Tech Together to Fight the Opioid Crisis — a tad more literal than The Avengers —  and is led by the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies.

The group’s first meeting took place in Washington D.C. on Tuesday 13 November, and saw representatives outlining the coalition’s goals, plans and commitments. TTFOC’s main purpose is to understand and act on how the internet, and social media, can be used to combat the “opioid epidemic” currently gripping in America.

In 2017 nearly 50,000 people in America died from overdosing on opioid-based drugs, including both legal and illegal drugs like heroin and morphine. This high fatality rate, and the ensuing cost for medical institutes and communities has led to many groups trying to find ways to combat the use of such drugs.

In a Newsroom post, Facebook laid out its plans for combating drugs on its platforms. Working with the computer forensics lab at the University of Alabama, it will explore and remove avenues drug dealers go through to peddle illegal substances on Facebook and Instagram. This includes plans to use AI to detect drug-related content and prevent drug dealers advertising their services by sending phone numbers, prices or usernames for other social media accounts, a measure which is currently being rolled out on Facebook.

In addition, when people search for opioid drugs on the platforms, they will be redirected to helplines for the purposes of education and treatment. As of writing, neither Twitter nor Google have outlined their own plans or policies in light of TTFOC.

However, the positive effect of Facebook’s endeavours may be limited. Avinash Tharoor, policy and communications officer at Release, the UK national centre of expertise on drugs, told Alphr “Tech companies’ attempts to block online drug sales may be well-intentioned, but they are unlikely to have much of an impact.

“Just like on the streets, people online will continue to find new and innovative ways to buy or sell drugs, regardless of attempted crackdowns. If these tech companies are serious about reducing the harms of illegal drugs, they could provide people who search for drug-related terms with easy access to harm reduction advice.

“Facebook, Twitter, and Google could save lives by linking to evidence-based guidance on how to reduce the risk of overdose and other potential harms associated with drug use.”

While TTFOC’s efforts are concentrated on America and the American opioid crisis, its findings, policies and actions could easily be implemented on UK social media too. Alphr contacted Facebook for clarification as to whether its drug-detecting AI would come to UK and, if so, when.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have repeatedly been asked to police their own platforms for illegal content, and the forming of this coalition shows an increased awareness of the impact they have in society.

Although social media is still far from a force for good, with extended periods of social media use having negative effects for mental wellbeing and increasing narcissistic tendencies, attempts to address social problems are always appreciated.

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