What might a completely digital research project look like?

In the last 6 months, many researchers (including research students) have had to adapt their research designs to make them COVID compatible. For many this move has been to digitise their methods. Can we interview people via Zoom calls? How can we recruit if we can’t actually enter the target setting, like the hospital or the public space?

As someone that has been working in primarily digital spaces for the bulk of research career, I don’t really need to do this pivot! Mostly, my work is already fully COVID compatible. (Although, ironically, I had just had a project approved in November 2019 that did involve in-person data generation, and now am having to change this to online workshops!).

I draw on my experiences doing digital social science research for nearly 20 years, with a focus on illegal drugs, mainly but not exclusively with people who use drugs recreationally.

Digital technologies provided a way of reaching this population. They are considered hard to reach because they do not typical come into contact with health, justice, and social services. In the 2000-2010s, web forums were a popular location for group discussions either directly about drug use or more tangentially in relation to settings of use, like dance music festivals or nightclubs where drugs are typically consumed.

In the early 2010s, the first darknet markets emerged, where drugs are traded in ebay like marketplaces accessible through anonymising software, e.g. Tor. These spaces not only functioned as marketplaces but also had web forums which hosted discussion between market participants who typically were also people who consumed drugs. Drug use and harms discussion also takes place in these settings, in addition to discussions about the marketplaces themselves.

In the later 2010s and into 2020, the digital ecosystems within which we are living in have shifted such that big tech companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter – are major players in how people can discuss drugs and associated issues in digital spaces.

Here I wanted to reflect on three different aspects of my digital research practices that may assist people facing this COVID methods pivot.

Cross-sectional transnational anonymous web survey
During the last 6 months, at Global Drug Survey, we decided to launch a special edition of the annual survey that focused on how drug use may have changed over the period of lockdown – in our survey this was Apr-May-June of 2020. We just released findings last week, here’s an Australian findings summary. You can read more about how we do GDS here. To summarise, the GDS survey is anonymous, the GDS organisation is independent (so can be nimble in responding to new drug trends), and we rely on partnerships with media and community organisations to promote the survey and return findings to those organisations rapidly.

I’m also part of the Global Cannabis Cultivation Research Consortium. Just this month we launched our second global anonymous survey of cannabis cultivators (if you are, or if you know, a cannabis grower – do check it out!). The first one was conducted in 2012-2013 when the policy landscape of cannabis was quite different to 2020. We have written about the specific challenges of transnational digitally mediated survey research here.

Text chat qualitative interviews
During my PhD in 2008, I used text chat programs to do qualitative interviews with young people who were involved in online forums where drugs were discussed. They were typically also engaged in the dance music and clubbing scenes. You can read more about that method here. Back in 2012, my conclusions were that people who use drugs found online interviewing to be “an acceptable and convenient way to contribute to research” and that “[w]ith adequate preparation to develop technical and cultural competencies, online interviewing offers an effective way of engaging with young people that is worthy of consideration by researchers in the alcohol and other drug field”.

Since then I’ve supervised students and have led an NHMRC funded project which employed these methods successfully. Dr Jodie Grigg used encrypted chat interviews with a similar population in 2016, Michala Kowalski used encrypted chat interviews to interview people who bought drugs from darknet markets in 2018, and Robin Van Der Sanden is currently interviewing people who report buying or selling drugs using social media apps or platforms in 2020. Jodie, Michala and Robin are all utilising the wickr platform, as unlike any of the alternatively, wickr does not require that the interviewer have the phone number of the interviewee. This makes it possible to conduct truly anonymous interviews.

Digital engagement with research sites and/or communities
Back in the 2000s doing my PhD about online forums where drugs were discussed, I noted that there were very different reactions by online communities to research. It ranged from actively welcoming, to supportive, to neutral, to actively opposed! I’ve written about my experiences engaging with these digital communities here.

Increasingly, the data generated by individuals in digital spaces becomes the data that can be utilised for research. We need to ask some important questions though. Who owns the data? Who should we be engaging here? My approach has typically involved an active engagement of people and groups: I’ve written about this approach with my colleague and friend Dr Alexia Maddox in this paper. As just one example, the approach of the digital community Bluelight.org is outlined here and here.

A paper decades in the making

The following questions are posed in our article “Coming Out”: Stigma, Reflexivity and the Drug Researcher’s Drug Use, published today in Contemporary Drug Problems. Download the accepted version here.

Should drug researchers who have direct personal experience of taking illegal drugs discuss these experiences in their work?

Are experts at least partly impaired in their understanding of drug use if they do not have that key component of expertise — personal experience?

Should researchers be open about their own personal experiences of drug use and the role these experiences have played in shaping their own research?

Why might it be important for drug researchers to publicly disclose their own drug use when it comes to engaging with policy makers and with the public at large?

Is it possible that by widening the concept of who uses prohibited substances we can break down the othering that occurs in public discourse and in public policy?

Conversely, by staying quiet about our use of prohibited substances, do we not perpetuate a false dichotomy between the researcher and the researched?

What are the implications of privilege and intersectionality for decisions about whether and how to disclose drug taking and drug use identities?

In short – Are we ready to come out?

In announcing the publication of this journal article today in Contemporary Drug Problems, I’d like to thank a few people. My co-authors, Anna, Judith and Gary, with whom I have had the pleasure of discussing this topic and nutting out a shared position for around 4 years now. My husband and family, for supporting my engagement with this topic and supporting this rather unusual career of mine. A much wider network of colleagues and mentors who have supported my work. And you, the readers, with who I look forward to further discussion once you’ve had a look at what we have written.

Are blogs even a thing anymore?

I began this blog in 2010, when the internet looked a little bit different to today. But I’ve just gotten a new job at RMIT University (hello again Melbourne!) and I’ve decided there is still a role for the humble blog. I’ve even renamed this website from the quaint sounding ‘Drugs, Internet, Society’ to ‘Drugs in Digital Society’. Perhaps in 5 years I’ll just say ‘Drugs’. Perhaps we are already so embedded in the digital that it almost ceases to be a thing that we speak of – it’s more like the air we breathe these days. (See The end of cyberspace).

I look forward to sharing more of my stuff with you in the months to come!

Pill testing is still a great idea, if we use the right equipment

Andrew Leibie (Pill testing sounds like a great idea, but there’s a catch, Sydney Morning Herald, 20/1) argues that pill testing is flawed. The technology is not accurate or reliable. It can’t detect all ingredients in pills, including some of the new drugs that are active in micro-doses. It can’t provide data on dose or concentration. He also argues that the evidence from countries where pill testing is conducted shows that it doesn’t work. He concludes that “the reality is that pill testing kits will never be able to detect all the illicit drugs entering the community”.

Many of the statements Leibie makes are factually correct. The problem is that he makes a number of assumptions about what pill testing is and how to evaluate it.

Image: Energy Control

First, let’s start with a summary of what we are talking about. ‘Pill testing’ (or drug testing) is a service that invites ordinary citizens to anonymously submit samples of illegal drugs for forensic analysis, and provides individualised feedback of results and counselling as appropriate. This kind of testing service has been operating in some form for 50 years across multiple countries around the world, with the longest running services operating in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain.

Leibie assumes that ‘pill testing’ involves colour reagent test kits. But pill or drug testing services acknowledge that testing kits as a main testing tool are poor technology. They only use test kits as their main tool when they don’t have access to better technology, due to lack of funding or government resistance to their operation.

Fully funded pill testing services use proper laboratory equipment. Mobile laboratories in Switzerland and Austria can determine contents and purity comprehensively in less than 30 minutes, with a minority of samples that require additional analysis sent to the main laboratory. In the UK, infrared spectrometers are used in the field, [edit: alongside other techniques, thanks Fiona Measham!] providing indicative results in less than one minute. Reagent test kits may be used to determine which next test to conduct. A suite of tools is needed depending on the drug, its form and whether there is evidence of multiple drugs.

Although testing services acknowledge the limitations of using test kits as the only analysis method, there is still important information that can be gleaned for consumers under specific conditions. For example, in the case of a pill sold as ecstasy or MDMA, the use of a Marquis kit can definitely tell you whether or not an MDMA-like substance is present can definitely tell you when there is no MDMA-like substance present and can be used to rule out MDMA as a possible component [edit: thank you to Earth Erowid]. For the consumer who is not interested in consuming anything but an MDMA-like substance, a negative result on the Marquis will prevent the use of the unknown substance. In many surveys of people who use drugs, including a recent survey that I led of 800 Australian festivalgoers (paper under review), the vast majority say they would discard a drug in this scenario. This decision could save their life if the drug they were about to consume was high dose NBOMe or PMA.

Yes, I agree with Leibie that there are scenarios where the use of test kits alone is problematic. One such scenario is where Ecstasy/MDMA is combined with another potent drug, like an NBOMe, as mentioned by Leibie. In this instance test kits would indicate an MDMA-like substance, leaving the consumer in the dark about the NBOMe. Another scenario is a pure MDMA pill that is high dose, with reagent kits unable to provide purity or dose information. These flaws underscore the importance of governments supporting the use of more sophisticated laboratory equipment in the field. They are not an argument against pill testing altogether.

Leibie also implies that testing has to be fast in order to be acceptable to the target group. We asked festivalgoers in our survey how long they would be willing to wait. Most were willing to wait half an hour, and many were willing to wait days or even weeks to find out what is in their drugs. A testing service does not just have to be stationed at a festival. It can also be available through fixed site booths, as it is conducted in the Netherlands, where people can have drugs tested in the late afternoon in preparation for their activities that evening or the next weekend.

It is absolutely true that reagent tests are not comprehensive. And this is why we need to fund access to laboratory-grade equipment to find out quickly what is contained within particularly lethal batches. A rapid turn-around of information from a credible source can make a difference. For example, in the Netherlands, a pill was identified through their testing service with high dose PMMA in late 2014, just prior to New Year’s Eve. Dutch services distributed warnings widely and no deaths were reported. Unfortunately the UK did not have a similar warning system and recorded 4 deaths due to consumption of this same pill.

Which leads me to the most inaccurate part of Leibie’s piece. His depiction of the UK is nonsense. Firstly, the UK did not have a pill testing service in 2015. Secondly, even now, the UK has one service, The Loop, which conducts testing at a handful of events. It is nonsense to try and evaluate the effectiveness of The Loop by pointing to one statistic about the number of NPS related deaths across the whole country a full year before any testing had been conducted in that country.

The technology is available for an Australian testing service to test samples and disseminate accurate information that could help people avoid harms and help health workers treat people more effectively. There should not be a need in this country to use old technology to provide a substandard service, unless governments continue to ignore the needs of people who use drugs in our community. Until that point, test kits and online reports will be the best information people have, with all their flaws.

Help inform harm reduction in the EDM space

We need your help!

Harm reduction group Energy Control – famous for their international and local drug testing services – have collaborated with Australia’s DanceWize to do some research into safer drug use practices. We will see how drug use patterns and safer use practices differ between Spain and Australia, countries with quite different policy settings.

If you have been to festivals or dance parties recently, please complete the survey and help harm reduction groups understand what’s really happening!

http://partyanddrugs.infoinnova.es/

Rainbow Serpent Festival
Rainbow Serpent Festival

Call for papers: Drug Cryptomarkets

CALL FOR PAPERS

SPECIAL ISSUE: DRUG CRYPTOMARKETS

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF DRUG POLICY

Guest editors:

Monica Barratt and Judith Aldridge

Cryptomarkets (or ‘dark net markets’) are digital platforms that use anonymising software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to facilitate trade of goods and services. Their emergence has facilitated transnational access to a wide range of high-quality psychoactive substances. Cryptomarkets are similar to open markets (e.g. so-called street markets) in the sense that trades can occur between strangers; however, cryptomarkets also offer the advantage of relatively efficient inbuilt trust mechanisms such as rating systems and forum discussions.

We invite papers that critically examine and advance our knowledge of drug cryptomarkets. The extent and quality of the submitted abstracts will determine whether we publish a full issue or a themed cluster of papers.

Abstracts (not exceeding 350 words) are invited that address the following questions:

  • What are the scope and scale of cryptomarkets?
  • How are cryptomarkets located within other internet structures (dark web, deep web, etc.)?
  • How are the drug use and harm/benefit trajectories of cryptomarket users affected by these new supply modes, compared with conventional drug market configurations?
  • How do cryptomarkets respond to threats from scams and law enforcement efforts?
  • What challenges do cryptomarkets pose for drug policy?
  • How is sense of community understood and enacted within the cryptomarket environment?
  • What is the potential for harm reduction digital outreach in cryptomarket environments?
  • To what extent do cryptomarkets flatten hierarchical supply network chains? What are the implications of their effects on network structures for drug markets?
  • To what extent can new drug trends emerging from cryptomarkets complement existing drug trend monitoring systems?
  • What are the methodological and ethical issues that arise from researching cryptomarkets?
  • How can participatory research models be implemented successfully in this space?
  • Any other research questions not mentioned above that relate to the theme.

We anticipate a wide range of disciplinary approaches will be included in this volume, as the topic invites consideration from sociological, criminological, economic, historical, epidemiological and policy perspectives. Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research are welcome. Papers must discuss the implications of their findings for drug policy.

We invite six types of contributions (NB: in rare circumstances word limits may be exceeded with permission from the editors):

  • Research papers: Research papers are usually based on original empirical analyses, but may also be discursive critical essays. These papers are usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Research methods papers: These papers explore methodological innovations in the field and are usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Commentary: These papers explore in depth a particular topic or issue for debate, and may also include evidence and analysis. The Editor may invite expert responses to commentaries for publication in the same issue. Commentaries are usually between 2,500 and 4,000 words.
  • Viewpoint: Short comments and opinion pieces of up to 1,200 words which raise an issue for discussion, or comprise a case report on an issue relevant to research, policy, or practice.
  • Policy or historical analysis: These are focused specifically around contemporary or historical analyses of policies and their impacts, and are usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Review: These papers seek to review systematically a particular area of research, intervention, or policy. Reviews are usually between 4,000 and 8,000 words.

Abstracts should be emailed to m.barratt@unsw.edu.au and to judith.aldridge@manchester.ac.uk by Friday 10 April 2015. The email subject heading should read “IJDP Special Issue”. The editors will inform authors by Friday 1 May whether to proceed to full submission. If selected, complete manuscripts will be due Friday 7 August. All manuscripts are subject to the normal IJDP peer review process. Accepted papers will be available online from late 2015 and the special issue or section will be published in print in early 2016.

For more information about the International Journal of Drug Policy, see: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/international-journal-of-drug-policy/

 

 

A discussion about dark net terminology

As a social scientist, I continue to be interested in understanding the intersections between internet technologies and psychoactive drugs, especially drugs that are otherwise difficult to obtain due to prohibition. These intersections are numerous: the internet can facilitate drug trades, information exchange, and safe spaces for communication between like-minded people. While all of the above occurred prior to ubiquitous internet use, current digital technologies lubricate these existing processes making them quicker, easier and more efficient, changing the scale of what is possible.

One enduring problem I have noticed when discussing these issues is a lack of clarity about terminology. This lack of clarity can lead to serious problems in logic and argument.

An example of this problem can be found in reporting by the Australian TV program 60 minutes from 2014, as described at AllThingsVice. In this program, the terms ‘deep web’ and ‘dark web’ were conflated. This conflation led to the reporters claiming that the dark web was 90% of the total content of the web, when in fact, it is many magnitudes smaller than the surface web. This conflation suited the tone of this story as it supported the scaremongering: making the dark web threat appear very large. Nevertheless the lack of shared definitions of terms makes this space harder to understand and easier to misrepresent.

I am by no means the definitive expert on all things dark net. What follows are my thoughts on what I believe we are talking about. I include here my sense of doubt and ambiguities that I believe exist regarding terminology and definitions of internet structures that surround or are present in the dark net. I invite your comments and hopefully these may lead to a more definitive document, although I doubt you can ever get ‘the internet’ to agree entirely on anything!

If we consider ‘the web’, that is, all of the content accessible through browsers connected to the Internet, we can divide the web into two parts: (1) the surface web, (2) the deep web. All content that can be accessed through search engines is the surface web. The remaining web content is the deep web: which we can define as content inaccessible via search engines. These terms and definitions were first used by Bergman in 2001. In his calculations the deep web was many magnitudes larger than the surface web, which he represented with an iceberg image, the surface web being just the tip of the iceberg of web content available. We are nearly 15 years on from this original formulation, so I have no idea the scale of content the web now contains. A very large number I’m sure!

So, what is contained within the deep web? Some examples include: content that is locked behind pay-walled websites, content accessible through company or academic databases, any kind of database that cannot be searched directly by Google, websites that are not linked to other websites, private websites and forums, etc. An example of typical deep web content is the results of a search for accommodation using a travel website. This content can only be accessed after a text search, which is something a search engine cannot do. A vast amount of website content can, therefore, not be indexed by clicking on links, and this is the deep web.

A small part of the deep web content includes hidden internet services, usually accessible through Tor but also through alternative anonymising software like I2P. By its users, this part of the internet is called the dark net. The terminology ‘dark’ refers to the difficulty finding the content rather than its nature being dark: content in the dark web is being intentionally hidden. The term dark net and the term dark web are often used interchangeably. According to wikipedia, a darknet is a private peer-to-peer network, but it also appears to be the term most currently used by hidden internet service communities to describe their world. For example, darknetstats, r/darknetmarkets, etc.

Dark net markets are digital platforms that use anonymising software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to facilitate trade of goods and services. These marketplaces have also been called cryptomarkets (coined by James Martin) because they would not be possible without the use of cryptography. Dark net markets or cryptomarkets are a subset of the dark net or dark web; the dark net/web is a subset of the deep web; and the deep web is a subset of the entire web. The deep web is all content that is not classified as the surface web, but it appears that the terms surface web and clear web / clear net are used interchangeably to refer to the same thing: web content accessible via search engines. Perhaps at some point the clear / dark distinction was binary, in that the dark web represented everything that the clear web was not.

An interesting point was made in conversation with Rasmus Andersen on the above distinctions. He noted that it is in fact more difficult to access paywalled content in the deep web than it is to access dark net markets, because there are many access points in the surface web that lead there, even without the need to install Tor. For example, tor2web can be used as a gateway into dark net markets without actually using Tor, although this would not be a secure option. Many of the sites that track the development of dark net markets are also hosted in the clear web: deepdotweb and r/darknetmarkets, for example. So, although content from dark net markets is not directly indexed by search engines (at least clear web search engines, cf. dark net market search engine Grams), entry points into dark net markets abound in the clear net. A simple Google search can mean you are not far away from entering a dark net market. But as I’ve outlined previously, it takes more than entering the marketplace to make a successful purchase!

Here are some helpful related links:

Hacker Lexicon: What Is the Dark Web? by Andy Greenberg

Clearing up confusion – deep web vs. dark web by Bright Planet

Thanks to those involved in prior discussions on the Cryptomarket Research e-list. The above is provisional so tell me what you think in the comments.

Returning from leave to begin a new fellowship!

This week I have returned to work from maternity leave to start a new job at the University of NSW, specifically within the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. I am starting my 4-year National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Fellowship. My topic of research continues my interests ‘Drugs, Internet, Society’ but with a specific focus on new/novel/emerging drugs, as these pose unique policy challenges both here and globally.

I’ll be part-time to begin with and I have a number of ongoing projects to complete as well, but I do hope to become more active again with my blogging and other social media outlets. I really value the interactivity and public conversations that these media allow. So, expect some more discussions over the coming months. 🙂

Letter to Nash and Dutton re defunding ADCA

My email to Senator Nash and MP Peter Dutton:

Dear Ms Nash and Mr Dutton

I was shocked to discover that the ADCA has been defunded by your government. I am a research fellow specialising in alcohol and other drug research – my work has recently been recognised by an early career research fellowship through the National Health and Medical Research Council. I have been a member of the ADCA since 2003, when I first began working in this field. I regularly use their services and participate in their events, which enable the broader public to be better informed about drug/alcohol issues. These issues touch the lives of almost everyone in our community. I am astonished that your government does not see the value in such an organisation with a 50 year history, an organisation that is highly valued by everyone in our field.

I would ask you to reconsider your decision. For what is a relatively small amount of funding, this group does a lot of good work, and is supported by paid members like myself, so is not entirely dependent on your funding (therefore bringing greater value for money than a fully funded council). I see this decision as very short-sighted, because by reducing the government commitment to ADCA, you will very likely be increasing the burden of alcohol/drug issues in the community, therefore increasing the costs of managing such problems down the track. Prevention is better than cure, and it is also less costly for the budget. I would hope you would see this logic when consider budgetary matters rather than looking for short-term cuts.

Yours sincerely,

Monica

 

Farewell for a little while

There’s been a lot going on in the world of online drug markets and new synthetic drugs lately. I appreciate people are interested in my commentary on these matters. I wish I could respond to you all, but unfortunately I am unable to do so.

In 4 weeks time I will go on maternity leave, and will be taking quite a few months (perhaps even a year!) away from my job. I need some time in this last month to finish up the loose ends of my project work, and then I need to prepare for the impending arrival of our first child!

If you have a new request for me, please contact the National Drug Research Institute reception on +61892661600 or ndri@curtin.edu.au where our receptionist and media officers can assign other researchers to help you.

As for my blog readers, I’m not sure how long I’ll be away – I might pop my head back in to write some ideas up, but can’t guarantee anything. Stay safe and be well. 🙂

Monica