Social media restrictions on free speech could crush harm reduction and addiction recovery efforts


When Chad Sabora first started working in harm reduction, he was working from his car on the streets of St. Louis, Mo’s battered sedan. Sabora was a familiar sight in neighborhoods frequented by drug addicts. Sabora, a lawyer and former Chicago prosecutor, had been recovering for years and had been directly dependent on drug addiction. Based on decades of research and his own experience, he knew that sterile syringes prevent the transmission of infectious diseases, that naloxone saves lives by reversing overdoses, and that a pep talk or thoughtful gesture in the right place. moment could profoundly help someone in the grip of addiction. He took a hands-on approach to helping others in his hometown.

As the unprecedented overdose crisis in the United States became a national problem, Sabora considered ways to expand her operation. Like many people, he took to social media, where he tried to spread the gospel of harm reduction and share simple strategies to help people survive their substance abuse disorder. Never use alone. Take naloxone with you. Use new syringes. Statistically speaking, there are millions of drug addicts and addicts online. Tragically, more than 200 people die each day from drug overdoses in America, and more than 100,000 Americans have died in the past year alone. But on Facebook, Sabora sensed that something was preventing her from reaching the masses. Then he noticed that his messages went against the almighty algorithm.

“I was put on hiatus just for posting about naloxone,” Sabora said. When he created educational posts about the risks of illicit fentanyl, teaching people how to use the fentanyl test strips, his account was disabled. He realized that by mentioning the drugs his account was being hacked by Facebook’s automated content censors intended to curb drug sales on social media platforms. The algorithm could not distinguish its content from that of a suspected drug trafficker. The algorithm recovers particular words, phrases, or vocal patterns that are flagged and deleted. Whole groups of harm reduction activists has disappeared, as well as dozens of messages and news feeds. Some accounts have been banned for life.

Sabora believed he could use the tools of social media to make a difference and help educate people about harm reduction. Instead, he found himself silenced by social media censors.

An obscure regulation called Section 230 protects social media companies from being held liable for questionable user-generated content. Understandably, some politicians and activists are calling for rewriting Section 230 to get tech giants to do a better job of moderating the content users post. While there is undoubtedly a credible argument for doing so, we must also be careful. The rewrite of section 230 could work against you. Instead of ending online drug sales, these new rules could further censor activists like Sabora who attempt to use social media to save lives during an overdose crisis. Congress should be careful when developing content moderation regulations regarding substance use disorders, as companies are likely to shut down all related conversations to avoid liability.

Article 230 is a decades-old law that regulates online speech and governs almost all interactions on social media. The law is part of the United States Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 also protects social media platforms from liability for content posted by users. For example, if QAnon group plans and implements treacherous insurgency in Washington, DC, the website that hosted this group has immunity. They cannot be sued for what people post online. However, advocates have often tried to modify Article 230 to support their own political goals.

Sex trafficking is one of the most recent and thorniest cases of the rewrite of Section 230 of Congress. Claiming to want to protect children and vulnerable people from kidnapping and trafficking, advocates have pressured lawmakers to pass a set of laws known as FOSTA / SESTA. This law amended section 230 by holding websites and online platforms responsible for user content that could facilitate “sexual exploitation”. Although the Justice Department officially warned that FOSTA / SESTA would make prosecution in sex trafficking cases more difficult, it was adopted anyway. Disaster ensued. Instant crackdowns were implemented by websites, and some websites that provided a safe haven for sex workers to screen their clients have been shut down completely. These measures failed to slow down sex trafficking. In reality, the law was only used once by federal prosecutors who said they don’t really need it; they were able to use other existing laws to prosecute sex trafficking offenses in the past. While FOSTA / SESTA did nothing to help potential victims or catch traffickers, it had an immediate negative effect on another vulnerable group: sex workers.

A similar crackdown could hurt drug users and harm reduction advocates like Sabora who try to spread vital information. Just as advocates have urged Congress to rewrite Section 230 to prevent sexual exploitation, a similar campaign is underway to prevent drug sales and curb the overdose death rate in the United States. Horrible stories involving young adults buying drugs on snapchat and TikTok abound. Some parents and advocates want Section 230 to be rewritten to increase the accountability of social media companies for drug sales on their platforms. But efforts to crack down on online drug sales through Section 230 exclusions are somewhat misguided. Without careful consideration, these reforms would endanger the recovery community and harm reduction advocates and threaten to stifle a productive narrative that is essential to moving forward in the fight against the overdose crisis. The 230 exclusions currently on offer could hamper access to vital resources, forcing the removal of broad categories of content and forcing vulnerable populations, including those who navigate support services, to leave the platform. For criminalized communities, the risk of offline exploitation and harm is significant, and support and resources may be limited.

Harm reduction efforts — and conversations — are often nuanced and individual-specific, aimed at minimizing the harms of substance use. Broad content bans, prescribed regardless of context and nuance, could punish those seeking help, hampering legitimate and proven approaches to tackling overdose.

Instead of largely crushing free speech and pushing social media companies to eliminate our ability to share resources, the US government should focus its efforts on things that work. To save lives, policymakers must develop a realistic national strategy to address the overdose crisis, including through the implementation of evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery services at community level. Don’t kill the conversation. Instead, we need to coordinate with the localities to identify genuine places of support. Most of the major platforms where these conversations take place have clear rules prohibiting the online sale and promotion of controlled drugs and substances, and companies need to do a better job of controlling these efforts. The federal government must work with online platforms to coordinate a more effective strategy to eliminate bad actors and work with law enforcement to prosecute drug traffickers.

There is a world between a needle exchange and drug trafficking. Until our government – and our social media companies – recognize it, we will continue to lose friends, loved ones, neighbors and family to preventable overdoses. Not because they wanted to die. But because they were silenced and separated from the people who were trying to help them.

Ryan Hampton is a nationally recognized recovery advocate, community organizer and long-term recoverer from addiction. He is the author of “Unresolved: How Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy left victims of the overdose crisis in the United States unresolved. ”Follow him on Twitter: @RyanForRecovery



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