Digital drug consumers - The production of consumption practices in online communities of illicit drug users

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Social Sciences

Abstract

This research was designed and funded in relation to the following EPSRC research themes and sub themes: Digital economy; trust, identity and security; digital business models; content creation and consumption.

Ever since internet communication technologies became accessible to the general public of developed countries in the 1980's, illicit drug users from this part of the world have appropriated them by creating massive online communication platforms which function as influential digital hubs for the production and dissemination of illicit drug consumption practices.

Research from the previous decade has already established the potential of these platforms to-among other things-increase/decrease supply of and demand for specific substances and increase/decrease physical, mental and social harms associated with specific substances. In the meantime, internet communication technologies have spread to an even larger public, have become even more inter-weaved with normal social activities and have advanced significantly in a technological sense.

The aim of this EPSRC-funded research is to account for these significant developments in two important ways:

- By analysing data from the most recent iterations of online drug consumer culture such as massive sub-forums on mainstream platforms like reddit and forums hosted by encrypted online drug markets (ie 'darknet markets' or 'cryptomarkets')
- By developing a novel digital research methodology that employs analytic methods which were developed within computer science but are now beginning to be applied more widely. This methodology combines online data collection, social network analysis and natural language processing and thus makes it possible to conduct an analysis of the structure and content of online illicit drug platforms on an unprecedented scale (i.e. millions of observations across multiple platforms).

This leads to a highly contemporary analysis of online drug consumer culture which aims to provide an up-to-date picture of how drug buying and selling practices are produced in the digital domain by addressing the following research questions:

-How is demand for specific drugs produced/reduced in online markets and communities?
-Which attitudes and practices of drug buying/selling are being disseminated in online markets and communities? E.g. safe use or experimentation?
-How does the community and market structure and type of interaction facilitated by the platform impact the above?

These questions will be addressed for three types of platforms - encrypted market forums (i.e. 'darknet markets' or 'cryptomarkets')compared to newer massively popular mainstream platforms (e.g. reddit and Facebook) and historically influential specialised discussion forums. A comparative analysis of large data sets from these platforms is made possible by the quantitative digital methodology which is applied and developed as part of this research. This methodology consists in a combination of automated online data collection (crawling and scraping), descriptive statistics, social network analysis/statistics and natural language processing algorithms (topic modelling and word embeddings). Developing such an approach allows for socio-semantic analysis of online communities which is able to account for both the social structure and thematic content (as well as the interplay of these) in online interactions on a scale which has not been seen before within the field of online drug research, while also having applications outside of this field and thus contributing to online social media research in general.

Publications

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publication icon
Enghoff O (2019) The value of unsolicited online data in drug policy research. in The International journal on drug policy

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509565/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
1923449 Studentship EP/N509565/1 01/10/2017 30/11/2020 Peter Oskar Enghoff
 
Title Content analysis of online harm reduction communities 
Description A framework to identify and quantify harm reduction content in online social platforms hosting discussion on illicit drug use. 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact A paper on this approach is currently being drafted. 
 
Title Social network analysis of online communities of practice 
Description A framework for using social network analysis to measure the presence of a social structure necessary to facilitate a community of practice in a virtual environment (e.g. a discussion forum). 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact I am about to submit a paper detailing this analytical approach. 
 
Description "Digital Text Analysis in Social Science" - departmental seminar at University of Southern Denmark 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar at the Department of Market & Management Anthropology, University of Southern Denmark, September 2017. Around 30 participants, ranging from PhD students to associate professors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description "How to do Topic Modelling using R" - cross-departmental seminar at the Univesirty of Manchester. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A one-hour seminar on topic modelling and digital text analysis as part of Methods@Manchester's cross-departmental lunchtime seminar series.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description "The value of unsolicited data sourced from the internet to drug policy scholar" - conference presentation at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy's annual conference 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Conference presentation at major international conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018