The pharma industry has been scratching its head for some time about how best to exploit social media and efforts in this area have been tentative with uncertainty over regulations. Pharmaceutical spammers, on the other hand, have little reason to hold back. Already, spammers are taking advantage of Twitter to promote cheap pharmaceutical products such as Viagra and Levitra. Indeed, a recent study by the University of Akron in the US explained that Twitter “presents a new forum for spammers to facilitate illegal pharmaceutical scams”.
It’s a shame that so many communication platforms quickly become corrupted with spam. Of course, it’s not always pharmaceuticals that are being advertised – I’ve had emails about jewellery, fake inheritances and lottery funds, among other things. In the study, however, the authors cite Symantec, which claims that pharmaceutical spam accounts for 65% of all traditional spam email sent.
Since Twitter is a relatively new platform, spam hasn’t reached the same level of annoyance that it now occupies in email inboxes. However, the situation is getting worse as spammers learn how to exploit certain Twitter features.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with twitter, it’s possible to ‘mention’ another user by placing @username in a post. Twitter collects all of these mentions and feeds them back to the user so they know what is being discussed. It’s a really useful feature and I monitor mentions of our Twitter feed PharmTechGroup. Increasingly though, a lot of these mentions contain spam messages. Scammers have realised that using the @username is an effective (and irritating) way to get their spam message noticed.
Spammers also have many other tricks up their sleeve, such as embedding buzz words within the tweet that may be picked up by user searches. It’s frustrating that a platform with so much potential is being corrupted in this way. By the time pharma companies do get a firmer grip on Twitter, any posts to do with medicines may already have a bad reputation. In addition, the proliferation of spam pharmaceutical messages will also make it difficult for users to find official medicines information.
The Akron research is an insightful read (available here) if you’re interested in social media and goes on to describe how to classify and identify pharmaceutical spam. Hopefully, research such as this will eventually help to subdue the spam storm that is building around Twitter, as well as other social media platforms. Most of us just consider spam an annoyance, but a small number of people do follow the links from spam emails to purchase medicines online. There are a number of reasons why people choose to do this, including embarrassment (particularly for impotence drugs) and price.
In the next issue of Pharmaceutical Technology Europe, we will be looking at the danger of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in a special feature on packaging security. We’ll also look at why consumers buy medicines online and what procedures the industry is putting in place to safeguard its products and reputation. The issue is almost ready for print so keep an eye on our website!