New tech detects marketing, sale of opioids on Twitter

New tech detects marketing, sale of opioids on Twitter
Scientists have developed an advanced machine learning technology that mines microblogging website Twitter to identify entities illegally selling prescription opioids online.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego in the US collected about 619,937 tweets containing the keywords codeine, Percocet, fentanyl, Vicodin, Oxycontin, oxycodone and hydrocodone.

They detected 1,778 posts that were marketing the sale of controlled substances, 90 per cent included hyperlinks to online sites for purchase.

"An unhealthy use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs continues to rise in the US. Public policy and law enforcement efforts are trying to address this crisis, but closer attention to the potential negative influence of digital technologies is needed," said Tim K Mackey, associate professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

"Our study demonstrates the utility of a technology to aid in these efforts that searches social media for behaviour that poses a public threat, such as the illegal sale of controlled substances," said Mackey, first author of the research published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers used a three-step process that involved cloud-based computing to collect large volumes of tweets filtered by keywords, machine learning to isolate tweets related to the marketing of opioids, and web forensic examination to analyse posts that included hyperlinks to external websites.

During the five-month study period, less than one per cent of tweets mentioning opioids were marketing prescription opioids, and only 46 of the hyperlinks included in those tweets were still live when the team analysed the data eight months later.

However, if the technology were used for active surveillance the data could be used to find more live links and could also be used for surveillance and detection of other health-related illegal online activities, said Mackey.

"Social media providers can use it to find or prohibit content that is illegal or violates laws to ensure consumers have a safer experience online," he said.
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