DUBAI: A BBC investigation has found drug gangs using social media platforms, particularly Snapchat and Telegram, to target children and young adults in the UK.
Drug gangs are not only using social media to sell their wares, but also to exploit youngsters.
It was reported that a 20-year-old girl met a man on a night out who then sent her a friend request on Snapchat. They would “message 24/7,” said the girl, who thought she was entering into a romantic relationship.
The man, a drug dealer, was part of a gang that supplied the girl with drugs free of charge. “We would just drive around, and they would be drug dealing and we’d just be listening to loud music,” she told the BBC.
The boot of the car was full of drugs and “they would just say just put your hand in the bag and take whatever you want out,” she added.
The true cost came later when the girl was told that she had to pay for the drugs, either by helping the gang in dealing and earning the money back, or through sexual favors. She chose the latter.
She was drawn into the world of drugs due to social media — primarily Snapchat.
BBC reporter Charanpreet Khaira went undercover on the platform, creating an account as “Mia,” a 15-year-old girl.
She followed accounts related to music and humor, like any teenager, without looking for drugs. Snapchat also suggested friends for Mia to add, some of whom appeared to be drug dealers posting pictures of drugs they claimed to sell.
One of the friends Mia added on Snapchat posted a story linking to a Telegram page selling drugs like cocaine and ketamine.
“I am shocked that this content is so readily available, even though I set up this account posing as a child,” Khaira wrote.
Another friend suggested by Snapchat seemed to claim he was part of a gang transporting drugs from one city to another in the UK. He messaged Mia saying he was looking for a “loyal girl” and asked to see a picture of her.
During her investigation, Khaira found several accounts asking her for a picture, leading her to wonder if this is how “gangs check kids out” to see if they are indeed “young and vulnerable.”
Abdulla Alhammadi, Snapchat’s regional business lead for the Kingdom’s market, told Arab News in June that the service had more than 22 million active users in Saudi Arabia, who open the app nearly 50 times a day.
Over 40 percent of its users in the Kingdom are under the age of 25 and more than 90 percent of 13 to 34-year-olds in Saudi Arabia have access to Snapchat.
The popularity of the platform among Saudi’s youth is concerning, particularly at a time when Captagon distributors are seeking alternative methods of selling.
The Kingdom has become the No. 1 market for the makers and smugglers of counterfeit Captagon.
Saudi authorities have intercepted more than 600 million Captagon pills at the country’s borders in the past six years, and millions more are believed to have found their way onto the streets of the Kingdom.
The Ministry of Interior in Riyadh arrested five people in 2016 for selling drugs on social networking sites, including Snapchat.
Those arrested had been sharing videos encouraging drug abuse and urging young people to buy narcotics.
Buying or selling drugs on Snapchat is illegal. The company said it has a “dedicated team” that “supports police investigations” and meets with “experts to understand drug-related trends, terminology and behaviors used by gangs.”
Last year, Snapchat, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media, launched its Family Center parental-control feature in the Kingdom.
It also announced new content controls earlier this year, which “allow parents to filter out stories from publishers or creators that may have been identified as sensitive or suggestive,” the company said on its website.
Still, not only are gangs actively using the platform to sell drugs and recruit young users, but it appears that Snapchat may be suggesting such accounts to a 15-year-old, according to the investigation.