When one fentanyl-laced pill can kill, a zero tolerance policy towards drug activity on social media is of paramount importance and the parents who lost children to pills sold on Snapchat don’t feel like the company is doing enough to combat drug activity on their platform.
A coalition of these families first protested outside of Snap Inc.’s Santa Monica headquarters in June 2021 and on Jan. 21 they did so again.
In the interim, the fentanyl crisis has only gotten worse and the number of grieving parents in their group has only grown. According to the CDC, fentanyl is now the number one cause of death for men and women under 45 — more than car accidents, cancer, suicide, gun violence or COVID.
The protesting families are asking the company to accept their role in the fentanyl crisis and convene a nine-member oversight committee of outside experts in law enforcement, public health and safety, and parents whose children died from fentapills. Their demonstration comes on the heels of a new report Snapchat released detailing their progress in the fight against fentanyl.
“We share their outrage over how drug dealers have abused Snapchat’s services and are working tirelessly to eradicate them from our platform,” said a Snap spokesperson. “Over the last year we have significantly strengthened our tools for proactively detecting drug-dealing activity and shutting down dealers, improved our support for law enforcement, and educated Snapchatters about the fatal dangers of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl. We are committed to bringing every resource to bear to fight this national crisis both on Snapchat and across the tech industry.”
The protesting families are not satisfied with the response they have seen from Snap so far and would like to be better included in the conversations the company is having around addressing the crisis.
“They’re putting out little nibbles when a big bite is what’s required. I feel like they’re treating this as a PR issue rather than a core competency of theirs or something they need to devote their company to,” said Santa Monica resident Sam Chapman.
Chapman is the father of Sammy Berman Chapman, a Santa Monica teenager who died from fentanyl poisoning in February 2021. The 13 year old took what he believed was a Xanax pill he purchased on Snapchat.
A few hours later his father found him dead on his bedroom floor. The dealer was never prosecuted.
Since then Chapman and his wife Laura have dedicated themselves to raising awareness about the dangers of Snapchat and Fentanyl.
They were joined at the protest by Orange County parents Aaron and Amy Neville, who founded the Alexander Neville Foundation after their son Alexander died at age 14 from a fentapill he purchased on Snapchat and believed to be Oxycontin. The protest was co-organized by Victims of Illicit Drugs, an organization headed by Jaime Puerta, whose 16-year-old son died from a fentapill sold on Snapchat in Santa Clarita.
“They (Snapchat) have never ever reached out to me ever,” said Puerta. “I never received an apology from them. I don’t want to hear an apology about my grief or my pain. I want an apology that there’s a drug dealer on the platform reaching out to these children and selling them drugs and them dying.”
Other young victims of pills bought on Snapchat include Dylan Kai Sarantos, age 18 from Los Angeles, California; Luca Manuel, age 13 from Shasta County, California; Alexandra Capelouto, age 20 from Temecula, California; Devin Norring, age 19 from Hastings, Minnesota; Ryan McPherson, age 23 from Sauk Rapids, Minnesota; Kierston Torres-Young, age 19 from Vancouver, Washington.
Increasing awareness on the dangers and prevalence of fentanyl pills is one way Snap is addressing the crisis.
Snap has launched an in app education portal called Heads Up that provides information and resources to Snapchat users related to the dangers of drugs and specifically of fentanyl. They have also released episodes of their Good Luck America series related to fentanyl and partnered with anti-drug organizations to create PSAs.
The company’s other two key strategies are improving their detection of drug-related activity and strengthening their relationship with law enforcement. Snap works with DEA agents and outside experts to regularly update their list of drug-related terms and emojis and partners with third-party intelligence services to scrape for drug-related content across the web that references Snapchat.
On Jan. 18 Snap reported that over the past year it has increased its proactive detection rate by 390 percent, grown its law enforcement operations team by 74 percent and improved its response times to law enforcement inquiries by 85 percent. Most recently Snap made it harder for drug dealers to find teenagers by altering the Quick Add feature for users 13 to 17 so that they are only discoverable by other users who have a certain number of mutual friends.
Chapman and the other parents at the protest don’t think these steps go far enough. He called changes to the Quick Add feature bandaids and said it was easy for drug dealers to lie about their age on the app or continue adding teenagers as friends if they are already linked to their peers.
In particular, Chapman would like the company and other social media apps to allow the integration of 3rd party parental monitoring software. These programs monitor children’s communications on apps and flag potentially dangerous content for their parents to see.
“Snapchat needs to understand that… the people who have children who died on their platform is an ever growing group of people and that their souls are at stake,” said Chapman. “This is a pain that doesn’t go away and we are people who won’t go away. Either make the platform for our kids safe or you’ll keep hearing from us.”
Snap has said it has privacy and efficacy concerns around 3rd party parental monitoring software and is currently developing its own parental supervision tools.
The parents also seek more transparency into Snap’s efforts to combat the fentanyl crisis. The majority of the statistics the company has released are in percentages, making it difficult to understand what those numbers translate into.
For instance while the company says it has increased its law enforcement operations team nearly 10-fold, Snap does not disclose how many staff members are on this team or any teams across the company.
“Meaningful change from Snapchat would mean that we could audit what they purport again that they’re doing,” said Puerta.