An 'Ecommerce Platform for Fentanyl'? Protesters and Aggrieved Parents Take to Snap's HQ

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

"Snapchat has given drug dealers an organic ecommerce platform," Amy Neville shouted into her megaphone.

Neville is one of dozens of parents who marched Friday to Snap's headquarters to protest the role they feel Snapchat played in the deaths of their children.

The protest was organized by a coalition of grassroots advocacy groups and parents who share a similar, sad story: Their kids had used social media apps including Snapchat and TikTok to connect with drug dealers, from whom they sought to purchase prescription pills like Oxycontin and Percocet. Instead, they unknowingly received fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid that killed them.


"Corporate greed and the almighty dollar are more important to Mr. Evan Spiegel than our dead children," shouted Jaime Puerta, who lost his son Daniel to fentanyl poisoning in April 2020 at the age of 16.

Among the marchers and speakers was Dr. Laura Berman, a high-profile therapist who's shared advice on daytime programs including Dr. Oz, and her husband Sam Chapman. Their 16-year-old son Sammy died in February of poisoning from fentanyl that he took after purchasing what he thought was Oxycontin through Snapchat, Chapman said.

Dr. Laura Berman and Sam Chapman

Sam Chapman and his wife, Dr. Laura Berman, lost their son Sammy in February.

Photo by Sam Blake/ dot.LA

The couple spoke with Snap CEO Evan Spiegel and another Snap executive by phone just before the march.

Chapman said the call left him dissatisfied, describing the conversation as "sweet platitudes" and "a basket of excuses."

He and his wife want Snap to allow parents to monitor their children's accounts through third-party software, in particular an app called Bark. According to Chapman, Spiegel said Snap could not do that, and cited issues with user privacy and potential challenges with scalability.

A representative from Snap confirmed the substance of the conversation but said Snap is generally open to working with third party solutions for parental monitoring.

Spiegel also told Chapman and Berman that Snap would look into improving its reporting of statistics on how many subpoenas it receives to help with criminal investigations and how quickly it responds to those subpoenas.

At the protest, Berman briefed the crowd that she had told Spiegel that he has a choice: to be part of a problem or part of a solution.

"We are going to keep fighting you until you let parents protect our children," she shouted.

Many in the crowd carried posters with the faces of their deceased children and siblings, framed by a black and yellow border mimicking Snapchat's interface, with captions calling the app "an accomplice to my murder."

Matt Capelouto lost his daughter Alexandra in December 2019. He told Friday's crowd that Section 230, the federal legislation that shields online publishers from responsibility for the content on their platforms, was passed at a time when the consequences of social media were unknown.

"Now we know what those unintended consequences are: they're right here in all these pictures," he said.

Capelouto also spoke about his disappointment over the defeat in March of Califorinia Senate Bill 350, which would have treated fentanyl dealers like drunk drivers: repeat offenders whose actions result in someone's death can be charged with murder. The bill, known as Alexandra's Law, failed to make it out of the state Senate's Public Safety Committee.

Capelouto's advocacy did, however, catch the attention of Nathan Hochman, who spoke briefly at Friday's protest. The former U.S. assistant attorney general who is running for California attorney general addressed Spiegel directly.

"You should want to be a leader in this. You should tell Mr. Zuckerberg at Facebook: 'this is how we do it'," he said.

Snapchat protest A crowd of protesters gathers outside Snap's Santa Monica headquartersPhoto by Sam Blake/ dot.LA

Friday's rally is the latest step in a growing movement among parents to address what they view as a dangerous and tragic cocktail of an increasing supply of illicit drugs and social media platforms that make it easy for kids to access them. In April, a group of about a dozen aggrieved parents met with three Snap executives over Zoom to discuss the company's efforts to address the problem.

According to Neville, whose son Alexander died of fentanyl poisoning in June 2020, and who was one of the parents at that meeting, the Snap executives discussed plans to create a series of public service announcements among other measures, but most on the call left feeling disappointed.

"That meeting left a really bad taste in our mouth," she said. "They just aren't doing enough, fast enough, and it's not hard-hitting enough."

Bridgette Norring of Hastings, Minnesota, who lost her son Devin to fentanyl poisoning in April 2020, was also on that call.

"If I had my way they'd be shut down until they can create a safe environment for all their consumers," she said.

Snap says 90% of Americans aged 13-24 use its app and expressed condolences to family members who've lost loved ones to drugs sold on its platform.

"At Snap we strictly prohibit drug-related activity on our platform, aggressively enforce against these violations, and support law enforcement in their investigations," the company said in a statement. "We work to be as proactive as possible in detecting, preventing and acting on this type of abuse, and are constantly improving our technology and tools in this area."

For Chapman and others, Snap's comments are cold comfort.

"We wouldn't be standing here if the statement were true," Chapman said.

Snap said it is working to make changes to its technology and to raise awareness about drug dangers on the app. That includes partnering with nonprofits in its "trusted flagger program," working with moderators and adding new machine learning features that can flag and block the changing terms dealers use to sell drugs.

"Given the number of young people using Snapchat every day," the company said in a statement, "we believe that the most impactful way we can provide support and education for young people is in-app" through a program raising awareness on the impact drugs can have on users' mental health.

Marc Berkman, CEO of the West Hills-based nonprofit Organization of Social Media Safety, told protesters that access to dangerous substances like fentanyl is just one of several threats to childrens' safety on social media platformst. He also mentioned human trafficking and cyberbullying. Snap was recently sued for a series of cyberbullying incidents on its platform that allegedly led to a teenager's suicide.

Several protesters said raising awareness is their chief goal, and that they will not stop until something is done.

"Children are dying because of their use of social media," Berkman told Friday's protest crowd, who echoed back their agreement.

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Weekly Recap: The State of Venture Capitalism in Southern California

Luis Gomez

Luis Gomez is dot.LA's Engagement Editor. Prior to joining the dot.LA team, he served as the audience growth consultant for Capital & Main. He has also previously worked as a digital producer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, NPR affiliate KPCC in Los Angeles and Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter at @RunGomez.

Top L.A. venture capitalists are benefitting from a white hot market.

This week, dot.LA published the first of several findings out of its quarterly poll of top Los Angeles venture capitalists. In short, those surveyed remain optimistic about the economic recovery and more than half say their companies saw valuations jump in the second quarter.

Among other findings:

  • All of the 33 investors who took the survey saw employee headcounts increase at their portfolio companies last quarter
  • Most VCs surveyed expect more hiring on the horizon
  • Some (36%) said they're having trouble retaining workers.

LA Startups To Watch 👀

MedTech Innovator has launched BioTools Innovator, a new virtual accelerator for genomics, personal medicine, targeted drug therapy and other life science startups.

Culver City-based startup Modern Animal is looking to grow by appealing to both overtaxed vets and the new rush of pet owners with its hybrid telemedicine subscription service. On Friday, it announced a $75.5 million investment to help do it.

Adway promises to pay drivers $50-$350 a month in what they call "passive" income by projecting ads on the side of their cars. This week, the nearly three-year-old company clinched a $6 million seed round led by Upfront Ventures.

Spinn, the maker of a coffee brewing machine that uses a unique "centrifuge process," has raised $20 million in a round of funding announced Monday. The startup says its focus on sustainability sets it apart from other at-home brewing machines.

#TechLA's Movers & Shakers This Week 📢

Rocket Lab this week successfully launched a satellite for the U.S. Space Force after a failed mission in May. MIT-trained engineer and serial tech entrepreneur Krisztina "Z" Holly writes that Rocket Lab's quiet launch represents the real reason to have faith in space exploration, rather than space tourism.

Rental services are finally coming to the masses. Los Angeles-based Arrive Outdoors is making the technology behind its camping gear renting success available to brands that want to add a "rent" button on a product detail page. The company also announced it has raised $4 million in Seed II funding led by Amino Ventures.

LA Tech and Venture Capital News 🗞

El Segundo-based Dibbs, which brands itself as "the only real-time fractional sports card marketplace," this week secured a $13 million Series A round led by Foundry Group, with star athletes like Chris Paul and Skylar Diggins-Smith also investing.

Meta Data Software, a company that organizes the massive content libraries at some of the biggest streaming services, is calling Los Angeles its new home.

New data from PledgeLA's survey of Los Angeles tech companies and venture firms shows there is still a big disparity in pay among women, Black and Latinx tech workers.

Even as sports events scaled down during the pandemic, Elysian Park Ventures saw an opportunity in the digital realm. Co-founder Cole Van Nice says COVID ultimately advanced the timelines for the sports industry.

Listen Up 🎙

Need a podcast recommendation this weekend? Here are some new pods we have for you:

Hear from Alex Friedman, the co-founder of LOLA, a feminine care brand created to address the need for more transparency in women's health, in the latest episode of the Behind Her Empire podcast. Listen on Stitcher | Apple Podcasts | Spotify | iHeart Radio

On this episode of the L.A. Venture podcast, veteran media investor Daniel Leff spills the truth about streaming services: everyone's chasing Netflix. Listen on Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify

🚨 ​EXTRA EXTRA 🚨

Hundreds of Activision Blizzard employees in Irvine and many more remotely walked off the job on Wednesday to protest a workplace culture they call misogynistic and toxic. The walkout came after workers decried the company's response to a lawsuit brought forward by a California agency that accuses Activision Blizzard of fostering a pervasive "frat boy" culture. At their protest, they called on the company to be more transparent in its hiring practices.

Olympics viewership on NBC is taking a dive. New data shows a 36% decline from the 2016 Games across all NBC's platforms, which include its linear TV channel, Peacock and NBC Sports digital.

LA Tech and Venture Capital Events 💬

Immersive gaming experiences took a hit during the pandemic as venues shut down, but industry leaders expect them to come roaring back as people seek greater connections and the industry grows. This week, dot.LA hosted an intimate gathering at the immersive Two Bit Circus in downtown Los Angeles. Watch the video and sort through photos of the event.

Other upcoming Southern California events in the tech and startup scene in August:

Is your organization having an event? Let us feature it in our newsletter! Email luis@dot.la.

Am I doing this right? 🤔

Throw me feedback, compliments or questions on this newsletter at luis@dot.la or on Twitter at @rungomez.

'No Matter What I’m Doing, It's Always Controversial': Cloud9's All-Women Esports Team Talks Sexism in Gaming

Leigh Giangreco
Leigh Giangreco is a reporter covering culture, politics and news. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and Washington City Paper.

The belief that female players aren't tokens in esports is still a radical one. Just as dominant women's teams in traditional sports like the U.S. women's national soccer team struggle with discrimination, women in esports face online harassment and sexism.

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Disney, Walmart Join Local Governments in Requiring Worker Vaccinations

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

Entertainment giant Disney and retailer Walmart on Friday became the latest companies to require employees to be vaccinated. They followed Facebook and Google earlier this week.

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