Social media, drug abuse and drug wars

Today, let us look a three studies on alcohol, drugs and social media. What are they? What are the possible impacts they might have on our own present problems on alcohol and drug abuse? Also how if ever will it shape our own present war against drugs.

Alcohol use and social media

In this first study we look at the link between alcohol use and social media. Party on(line): The link between social media, alcohol use Researchers at Michigan State University conducted a study of 121 participants were one group was exposed FB ads touting beer and another group were exposed to FB ads of bottled water. At the conclusion of the study the participants were given as an incentive the choice between a gift card for a bar or a gift card for a coffee shop. Seventy-three percent of those who watched the beer ads choose the bar cards while for those who saw the bottle war ads after only fifty-five percent chose the bar card.

Project head and MSU Assistant Professor of advertising and public retaliations Saleem Alhbash said, “In this study we wanted to see whether just the mere exposure to alcohol messages on social media makes any difference in terms of people’s expressing intentions to consume alcohol, as well as engage in alcohol-related consumption behaviors”.

According to Saleem Alhbash, “What this tells us is there is an effect and it can be attributed to the sheer exposure to these messages…It primes them to think about alcohol”.

Alhabash warned that the study brings up questions about the ability of social media to influence people. Specifically those who are underage.

The Mexican Drug War and Narcomedia

Carnegie Mellon University’s Paul Eiss looked at how Mexico’s cartel operatives and government ( and its security forces) have used and responded to digital and social media. Eiss — who is an associate professor of anthropology and history in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences —has been studying the nature and implications of what he describes as “narcomedia” — which are forms of digital messagings that have become elements and motivations for the acts of violence in the drug war.

Eiss’ work reveals that the increase access to the Internet, cellphones and otber forms of digital media has significantly changed the landscape of what Eiss’ calls the so-called drug war in Mexico.

Mexico and narcomensajes

In Mexico, “narcomensajes” or narcomessages, are handwritten signs left by drug traffickers, often accompanied by gruesomely disfigured human remains. They have been used by traffickers since 2006 and are typically interpreted as ways for rival groups to claim territory and settle scores… From the onset of their initial emergence, the narcomensajes and “narcovideos” were clearly intended for digital reproduction and transmission to YouTube and other platforms. In effect bypassing the control of traditional media and taking advantage of the increasing number Internet users in Mexico. Internet. Access in Mexico increased from five percent (5%) in 2000 to 33 percent (33%) in 2010.

The study showed the politicization of narco media — in some cases the tactics of the narcomedia seem to have been adopted by government and security forces . For example in 2009 security forces killed cartel leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and distributed images of his symbolically desecrated body.

Attempts to curtail narcomedia by traditional media has been unsuccessful given the nature of digital media and social media — which are easy to create and easy to share. Their have been times when the press had been subjected to an unprecedented level of physical attacks — by traffickers as well as police and security forces for attempting to curtail narcomedia.

Eiss said, “I call my analysis of the narcomedia a ‘reader’s guide,’ because it is meant to provide a different way to read the narcomedia, and by extension, episodes of drug war-related violence in Mexico,”

Eiss, who also directs CMU’s Center for the Arts in Society (CAS). Further said, “ Against depictions of the drug war in black and white, as a fight of good guys against bad guys, the narcomedia reveal the conflict to be painted in shades of gray — leaving many observers asking ‘Who is who’? As such the rosy depictions of social media as an engine of progressive social change is countered by narcomedia, which shows that social media can and has been them used also as a powerful as a tactic of violence.

Despite this Eiss believes that in a climate of censorship and open physical assaults on the press, Narcomedia and the blogs that mine narcomedia for news are an increasingly important source for Mexicans, who are seeking news and perspective on the drug war and looking for ways to respond to it.

Professor helps track illegal drug use via social media in the United States

Yong Ge an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s College of Computing and Informatics , Department of Computer Science has developed a tool that uses social media data to help analyze the patterns of illegal drug use in the United States. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).Founded in 1887, the National Institutes of Health is one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, and the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States. The NIH, comprising 27 separate Institutes and Centers, is one of eight health agencies of the Public Health Service which, in turn, is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

According to Ge the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration does a national survey once a year to find out what type of illegal drugs people are using. Ge believes this is costly and might not even be accurate. Furthermore, Ge said that the once a year survey makes it nearly impossible to capture the dynamics of illegal drug use.

Ge said that with the use of social media analysis, researchers can now capture and analyze data on an ongoing basis and gives them a much more powerful tool to determine what is happening… One of challenges in setting up this data mining and analysis tool would be the creation of its database is the different names used to describe drugs. This is important because Ge believed that people use many different street names to describe illegal drugs. Ge said. “Therefore, we need to capture that data in order to get a good sampling of what people are using. It is very rare that folks will use the real names of the illegal drug.”

The tracking of illegal drug use through social media analysis is important because as Ge explained through the tool it would be able to see among other things where certain illegal drugs are being used, sort patterns of usage of drugs, detect new ways of using drugs. He said as soon as the real-time information is obtained then it will be possible to detect and report immediately what is trending and where. Ge said they hope to be able to supply this information to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and law enforcement authorities, eventually.

The importance of these three studies/researches to the Philippines

It should be noted that these three studies were not done in the Philippines: Two were done in the United States and one was done in Mexico. It is important for the Philippines because of the present drug problem. Drug war and the increasing use of social media by Filipinos. What can we learn from these efforts and how can we use it to solve our present drug problems; And what role will social media play?

A quick look at the three studies will show the three different research areas in social media and drug abuse:

First, How social media factors in drug and alcohol abuse, which is study on how alcohol ads as compared to bottle water FB ads affects alcohol consumption.

Second, How is digital media (and social media) being used by both sides of the drug wars, which is the study on narcomedia.

Third, How data mining and social media analysis can be used identify and study use of illegal drugs, which is the project of Professor Ge from the University of North Carolina.

What do you think of these studies? Can we in the Philippines make use of these studies? What can we learn from them?

Looking at the first study will we have to regulate on-line ads and digital contents — like FB posts and blog posts? I think we do have laws that regulate but do we have extend it to a more wide array of digital content and digital platforms? Furthermore, If this is done how will this impact the freedom of expression right? Can and should we control content from websites staked outside the country?

Now looking at the second study are we in danger of the proliferation narcomedia or do we have our own version? Given that traditional media in the Philippines does not seem to nor want to curtail the showing of the casualties of the drug war will narcomedia arise? One way to look at it perhaps would be is the media coverage just too much that it builds that it does not shock Filipinos anymore and it has become a new norm. The use shock news as a propaganda tool does not seem to come from the drug cartels but from other players and groups — vigilante and terrorist groups.

Finally looking at the third study how effective is data mining and social media analysis in a country that has an Internet Penetration Rate of fifty percent (50%) ? Also, Will the mining and analysis of social media although potentially expedient, accurate and effective bring up the fear of an Orwellian society: a digital panopticon from the dystopian society of Big Brother? As a citizen would you accept this?

Or would there be other ways to use these and other studies like these that takes a look at social media, drug abuse and the war on drugs?


Eiss, P. K. . The Narcomedia: A Reader’s Guide. Latin American Perspectives, 2014; 41 (2): 78 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X14521388

Eiss, P.K. . The Narcomedia: A Reader’s Guide. Latin American Perspectives, 2014; 41 (2): 78 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X14521388. Carnegie Mellon University. “How social media shaped the ‘drug war’ in Mexico.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 March 2014. Date Accessed: . .

Carnegie Mellon University. “How social media shaped the ‘drug war’ in Mexico.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 March 2014. .

Saleem Alhabash, Anna R. McAlister, Wonkyung Kim, Chen Lou, Carie Cunningham, Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, Jef I. Richards. Saw It on Facebook, Drank It at the Bar! Effects of Exposure to Facebook Alcohol Ads on Alcohol-Related Behaviors. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 2016; 16 (1): 44 DOI: 10.1080/15252019.2016.1160330

Michigan State University. “Party on(line): The link between social media, alcohol use.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 May 2016. .

University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Professor helps track illegal drug use via social media.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 June 2016. .



This post is supported by a writing grant from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).