How the Media Makes People Want to Do Bad Drugs

Did the news make you go "woof, woof," for some "meow, meow?"

The first time I read about Modafinil, I wanted to try it.  Most of the headlines describe the pill prescribed for narcolepsy, as the "Limitless drug"––giving users the superhuman ability to complete daily tasks better, faster, and more efficiently. 

Modafinil is classified as a Schedule IV in the United States, and illegal to import for anyone other than the Drug Enforcement Administration.  England's the Sun called it "Brain Viagra," and reported it also makes those who take it horny as hell. One blogger said taking the pill is like "hacking" one's intelligence, and that "not enough" Silicon Valley executives are reaping Modafinil's benefits. A Reddit thread details where to buy it online, and collects anecdotal experiences with the drug. And a Daily Mail piece says it's like viagra for your brain, and also your dick––helping men to last longer during sex, and do their homework too.

Who wouldn't want to try it? I haven't yet. But it wouldn't be very difficult to do so. The stories above are all you need to theoretically research, procure, and eventually pop the latest news craze in smart drugs. 

My social media feeds are filled with stories and content about drugs. Most of the news, at least from mainstream media sites, employs hyperbolic, sometimes inaccurate, language to describe trends among the chemical-imbibing populace. The something-beyond-honest headlines drive clicks.  

And according to Narcomania writer, Max Daly––a U.K. drugs journalist who has long offered an unfiltered, informed, mostly straightforward look into the world of psychoactive substances and the people who use them––these same scare stories actually make more people seek out the drugs billed as to be avoided. Watching the Food Network makes people want to eat. Reading and watching videos about drugs––even if the story is about overdoses––inspires people to get down. Peer pressure takes on a whole new meaning when your friends are sharing the content online. 

By analyzing Google searches for "buy meow meow," the square media-dubbed street name for the lab-fabricated stimulant mephedrone, Daly is able to link a rise in demand to specific Internet stories reporting misinformation that blames the drug for tragic teen deaths. 

"It's possible using this analysis to see how individual stories got people searching for the drug. And the news is this: The more gruesome the story, the more it makes people want to buy the culprit," writes Daly in Vice.

Image via Vice

Daly's independent analysis is corroborated by a 2012 Glasgow Caledonia University Study examining the link between alarmist drug fatality posts in the Internet news cycle and the rate at which people want to try the drugs they're reading about online. 

According to long-established drug lore, this happens on the street, too.

Reports of heroin dealers cutting batches of brown and black with prescription painkillers to increase the potency, and inadvertently killing one of their customers, are described as "marketing tactics."  A fatal overdose on fentanyl-laced gear, according to oft-reported street legend, means the rest of the inventory will almost certainly sell out in the immediate opiate-addicted market community, and much quicker than if all users had remained alive. 

Screenshot via Drugs, Inc./NETFLIX

Thankfully, this strategy isn't included on this blog post about marketing lessons to be gleaned from the drug trade, which comes from mainstream social media digital strategy company, Hubspot. But the headline alone makes the same point. 

When journalist Adrian Chen introduced mainstream readers to The Silk Road in a 2011 Gawker story, his reporting blew up the dark web drug bazaar, prompting a wave of new user signups––including yours truly. Chen's story was also the first time many readers of Internet news heard about bitcoin, the decentralized currency once favored by Internet drug dealers

The logic of, I'll have what made my friends stop breathing, being responsible for an increase in consumers seeking out the most potent drugs to consume is not exclusive to any one substance, or even a lone sales platform.

From Daly and Vice:

"This nihilism shit is exactly how the hardcore end of the synthetic weed market has operated since producers started trying to outdo each other with increasingly noxious and potent products such as Vertex and Clockwork Orange; according to drug workers, when users read or hear about a brand that's hospitalised or poleaxed someone, they'll go out and buy it because they know they will get bangs for their bucks."

Then again, last week's New York Times story on a surge in K2 overdoses has yet to send me down to the neighborhood's seediest bodega in search of the latest in foil-packed poisons.