Study: 'Partisan' Sites Winning Web War on Drugs
Giving dangerous information; U.S. anti-drug messages stifled
WEDNESDAY, Aug. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If search engines are any indication, drug-promoting Web sites are winning the war on drugs, at least on the Internet.
Researchers say a simple Internet search using street drug names like "ecstasy" or "psychedelic mushrooms" lists eight to nine Web sites promoting illicit drug use and providing misinformation, some of it dangerous. Because only one or two federal anti-drug sites get listed, the researchers say the federal government needs to be more Web-savvy if it wants get its anti-drug message across.
Not so, says President Bush's Office of National Drug Control Policy. More than 30 government anti-drug Web sites give accurate drug information on the Internet, each designed to get the anti-drug message to teens or their parents, an agency official says.
The Web site that sold manufacturing kits for GHB, the "date rape drug," initiated the research, says Dr. Edward Boyer, an assistant in general pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston. "And so we started looking at a Web site called Erowid. I noticed that [the site] described something called GHB withdrawal which was not, at the time, well-described in the literature and wouldn't be for another year and a half. What was interesting was that Erowid described a drug-use pattern long before medical professionals picked up on it, and that prompted us to look at other Web sites."
Boyer and his colleagues typed the names of such street drugs as "GHB," "ecstasy," and "psychedelic mushrooms" into the Metacrawler search engine on separate occasions over 10 months to see what information would be retrieved.
"The information provided by the search engine focused on pro-drug Web sites, and you were far more likely to get a pro-drug -- or what we call a 'partisan' -- Web site than you were to get an anti-drug Web site produced by the government," Boyer says. "And we also found that the drug sites that promoted drug use invariably made recommendations that were potentially dangerous."
Boyer says their first two searches listed eight "partisan" and two federal anti-drug Web sites in the top 10 results. The third search identified nine "partisan" sites and one federal site, and the final two searches found eight pro-drug sites and no federal sites.
Boyer says Metacrawler was chosen "because it prevents repetition of results." He also says researchers verified the findings using two other search engines, Google and Ixquick.
"We found these results significant because the federal government is taking the lead in anti-drug efforts, and they also have a multi-billion dollar effort to try and prevent drug use," Boyer says. "Their multi-media effort is not getting out over the Internet. The issue here is that the Internet is more and more the communication vehicle of choice for adolescents and young adults."
The findings appear in a research letter in the Aug. 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Boyer says pro-drug Web sites are popular because they provide "plausible descriptions of the preparation, dose and administration and psychoactive effects of drugs. A site like Erowid has more than 4,000 pages of information on drugs, and it's not only believable, but it's credible in the eyes of young users. And the federal government is not keeping anybody off [these sites], and they do not have an effective alternative to these sources of information."
Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the researchers are right about the number of pro-drug sites but wrong about the federal government .
"The National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign uses a number of different methods to reach adolescents and their parents with science-based anti-drug information, including significant outreach on the Internet," says de Vallance. "Our interactive strategy is twofold: to drive traffic to the media campaign Web sites like freevibe.com, which targets messages to youth, and antidrug.com that provides parents and other adults and caregivers with strategies for raising drug-free kids. And there are actually 27 other anti-drug sites that we are either sponsors of or we link to. The media campaign alone purchases over 100 keywords to combat online pro-drug strategies."
She says, "The media campaign was never intended to match or divert the plethora of pro-drug information available on the Internet. The media campaign is designed to provide information and education to empower youths and their parents to make healthy decisions about drug use. To say that there isn't specific and scientific drug information on any of our Web sites is just factually inaccurate."
Kids are using the Internet to find out about drugs, says Howard Simon, a spokesperson for the Partnership for A Drug-Free America in New York City.
"We know from our own research that the number of teens who are saying they are using the Internet to find information on drugs is up 38 percent since 1998. Now, over that same period of time, the percentage of kids exposed to anti-drug Web sites is up 50 percent. So while these are interesting findings and worth studying, I don't think you can draw the conclusion that there isn't any valuable anti-drug information on the Web or that kids aren't see it. That does not seem to be supported by what the Partnership is finding."
The proof may be in the pudding, Simon says. "Since 1997, teen drug use in the United States is actually down." He says 53 percent of teens in grade seven through 12 nationally said they had tried drugs that year, but by 2000 the figure was down to 48 percent. "Is that too high? Absolutely. But the number's moving in the right direction," Simon says.
Anti-drug efforts will only be successful if parents are involved, Simon says. "If parents are talking to kids about drugs, then perhaps that can spur kids to go to a site. If parent's are not speaking to their kids about drugs, they can be darn sure that someone else is."
What To Do: To see what information is provided about drugs online, visit a "partisan" site like The Vaults of Erowid. Anti-drug use information and messages are provided by the federal government at freevibe as well as by the Partnership For A Drug Free America.