Social Media Giants’ Censorship of Harm Reduction Is “Book Burning”

Dominic Milton Trott, a former small-business owner in England, wanted to go to Peru to do ayahuasca, and became engaged in an online community of drug users along the way. But around 2010, he noticed that some people who had once been active were no longer posting on forums like Reddit.

“It’s because they were all dead,” Trott told Filter. He began to ask questions about the circumstances of their deaths, and found that “no one was telling them or explaining to them how to prevent mistakes” when using drugs, such as safer dosages. Out of “the alarm of seeing people on the internet dying,” Trott endeavored to create a guide on the safer use of 175 drugs⁠—all of which he tried himself.

His book, The Drug Users Bible (originally titled The Honest Drug Book) was first published in November 2017. It generated some initial online interest, he said. But ever since, he has found that consistent social media censorship has limited its readership—what Trott metaphorically described as “book burning.”

On August 14, 2019, for example, Tumblr removed a post by The Drug Users Bible that linked to Trott’s Youtube video (below) explaining the “10 Commandments of Safer Drug Use.” The post was flagged for potentially “be[ing] in violation of Community Guidelines.” Drugs are not mentioned in the Tumblr’s guidelines, though they do prohibit “unlawful content.” A spokesperson told Filter that “Tumblr does not comment on specific moderation instances. As a matter of general policy, we encourage our users to file appeals on content they feel may have been mistakenly flagged in violation of our Community Guidelines.”

But it’s not just Tumblr. Trott has faced rejected advertisements and account deletions across many of the largest social media platforms, mostly accompanied by rationales that categorically misunderstood the nature of his book.

On Reddit, a forum-hosting platform with nearly 200 subreddits on drug use, two advertisements submitted by Trott in 2018 were rejected because they were considered to be promoting a “hazardous product”—in this case, recreational drugs.

An email from Reddit regarding the rejected advertisement.

Trott considers this a sad irony: His book, after all, fully recognizes the risks and harms of drug use. “This is harm reduction material. It’s not glorifying it or promoting it. It’s there to protect people from killing themselves,” he said

Other harm reductionists have had similar experiences. Adam Auctor, the founder of Bunk Police, a company that sells drug-checking supplies, was reportedly banned from placing Facebook advertisements that included an image of a fentanyl test strip in spring 2019, because his ads allegedly “promoted” drug use.

As part of Trott’s initial marketing campaign, he attempted to place an advertisement for his book on Twitter in January 2018. The proposed ad was rejected on the grounds that it violated the site’s prohibition on content concerning “paraphernalia associated with drug use.”

Correspondence from Twitter regarding the rejected advertisement.

According to the Controlled Substances Act, the federal law that mandates drug prohibition, paraphernalia is defined as “any equipment, product, or material of any kind which is primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body.”

Usually this refers to syringes or pipes, which are, after all, instruments used to consume drugs. But drug checking kits to help keep drug users safer have also been classified as “paraphernalia” by online platforms—like when Amazon removed product listings by Bunk Police and another company, as Filter reported.

Twitter’s classification of Trott’s book as “paraphernalia” does not square for the author when the book is “simply a channel” for “vital information” about staying safe when using drugs—not a means to use drugs. Twitter did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment by publication time.

Trott has tried to reverse these decisions, which he believes contribute to putting people’s lives at risk. After appealing each censored activity, the only thing he’s heard back is “a standard copied-and-pasted email, [and] no answer to specific questions with specific concerns,” as in the cases of Reddit and Twitter.

And that’s if the social media companies even respond. When his Drug Users Bible account was removed by Instagram on July 21, 2019, Trott sent emails to the company and received no response. All he was told was: “Your account has been disabled for violating our terms”.

A message from Instagram regarding the disabled account.

But on August 14, Trott noticed that the Drug Users Bible Facebook page had been restored from being “quarantined,” as he described the limitations placed on his account. Earlier this year, on April 29, he had found the account’s posts to be un-shareable and external links to the book’s website to be blocked. One Facebook user noted that posts were still un-shareable two weeks ago, which seems to be the last time the functionality was checked.

Trott has not received any correspondence from Facebook about the status of his account or why it changed. Facebook did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.

A message from Facebook regarding the limitations set on Trott’s account.

With limited redress for the censorship of his work, Trott sees the Silicon Valley giants’ policies as an obstacle to harm reduction education. “It’s never had the opportunity to grow,” he said of his book⁠—although its performance in non-English speaking countries shows its potential. “[Social media platforms] don’t seem to be good at censoring foreign language. It sells a lot in Italy, France, and Holland, and that’s because it has more freedom and visibility across social media than in English-language social media.”

While he’s frustrated how “clearly [social media censorship] had an impact” on the growth of his book’s audience, he’s more concerned about the stakes for people who can’t get their hands on the information presented in The Drug Users Bible.

“The worst thing of all is that this information is being withheld. You have to wonder who might have survived⁠—but who has now died because they didn’t know the dosages [of certain drugs, as provided in the book],” Trott said.

Social media platforms are “stopping the information from reaching people,” Trott said. “Are they killing people? I’m absolutely convinced that they are.”


Graphic by Dominic Milton Trott via Facebook. All images of correspondence courtesy of Trott.

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