Using social media to uncover a black market ‘brand’ linked to vaping illness

Inverse reporter Emma Betuel. Courtesy photo.

On September 27, federal health officials announced that they had tracked a number of bootleg THC cartridges to the vaping-related lung illnesses that have afflicted more than 1,000 people across the country. The most common cartridge cited by officials is a brand known as Dank Vapes. 

Emma Betuel, a mind and body reporter for Inverse, began investigating the murky origins of Dank Vapes months earlier, as questions about the origins of the illnesses swirled. She had seen a local news report about vaping-related illnesses, in which an interview subject shows a brightly colored package bearing the Dank Vapes name. In an August story, Betuel wrote that, while the “brand” Dank Vapes is not actually a THC cartridge company, the packaging is readily accessible for anybody who wants to sell a product bearing that name.

“People need to know that Dank Vapes isn’t real,” she told CJR. “I felt like I was screaming in a corner, ‘This company is not legitimate and they’re really dangerous.’”

Betuel spent a month direct messaging with anonymous users behind Dank Vapes-associated social-media accounts, scrolling through scores of hashtagged posts, consulting with marijuana-vaping experts across the country, and even placing orders for cartridges herself to learn more about the products. She described her approach as “neighborhood beat reporting,” but on the internet. 

Betuel’s investigation began weeks before health officials publicly drew the connection between black-market cartridges and the lung illnesses, and was the first deep dive into Dank Vapes. At the time she began, coverage of the “brand” was limited to niche marijuana sites. Her reporting on Dank Vapes has since been broadly cited by other publications, including Rolling Stone and Vice.

CJR spoke with Betuel about how she dug into Dank Vapes; reporting the vaping illness outbreak through social media; and whether or not illnesses tied to e-cigarettes have been overblown by the media. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did you get interested in the subject of Dank Vapes? 

Back in July, the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin did a press conference, and they said they had eight cases of people who have vaping-related illness. The way they were talking about vaping was very different from the way that a lot of scientists that I had been talking to for a while had been talking about it. All of the studies that I’d been covering were like, What will happen in 10 years if people vape? [Doctors at the hospital] were talking about  acute, quick-striking illnesses that were putting people in the hospital.

I went to my editor [Nick Lucchesi, Inverse’s executive editor] and said, “I think we should do something on this.” He told me to just follow this story, hold up on it. At the time, I was actually kind of annoyed. He was like, just do more reporting. That was a news instinct on Nick’s part. 

 

How did you set about trying to find that deeper story?

It definitely started with the Fox 6 segment. That was the beginning of everything, because that’s where Patrick DeGrave [the brother of one of the eight hospitalized people] holds up the Dank Vapes box. I took a screenshot of that one local news segment and thought, What is this box? 

At that point, we thought that maybe they were a company. If this guy is accusing your company of putting his brother in the hospital, then you should have something to say about it. I figured we would get a spokesperson from Dank Vapes who would respond to this family. And then, I mean—there was no real company.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was writing about [the illness outbreak and DeGrave], so I would look at how they were covering it. I would go back to the Fox 6 segments. If you went through Google News at that time in early July, you could just see online-only or local newspapers reporting on it. I was looking to see people who were talking about it, and if they were naming Dank Vapes. It was really just in that segment. But then, there was a big conversation on Twitter about Dank Vapes because of that segment.

Next I thought, OK, who are people who are buying these things? I looked at the Dank Vapes hashtag on Twitter and on Instagram. I saw that there were these guys called “dankbusters,” who were basically these unpaid accounts who were just trashing Dank Vapes all the time. I reached out to them on my personal Instagram account, figured they would never get back to me. And then all of them immediately said, We want to talk about this. Everyone thinks this is a real company. It’s not. And then I went on Reddit, on a bunch of different subreddits, and people were saying that this isn’t a real company. 

I called a bunch of labs in California that test marijuana vape products. I would ask them if they had heard of Dank Vapes and they all kept saying the same thing: This is a giant black-market scam. The thing that sealed the deal was calling the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, or emailing back and forth with them, and asking them to confirm if there was a license listing for this company. They said no. It sort of fell into place that there was just no legality to this at all.

 

It’s confusing as to whether or not there is a “real” Dank Vapes out there. There isn’t. But a lot of people thought there was, and it became clear that ‘real’ was synonymous for clean.

 

When you started looking into this, was there any other Dank Vapes media coverage?

The only people who I saw who had written about it were Dab Connection. There were niche marijuana sites that had talked about Dank Vapes. They had been posting things like, How to tell if your Dank Vape is real. Because it’s confusing as to whether or not there is a “real” Dank Vapes out there. There isn’t. But a lot of people thought there was, and it became clear that “real” was synonymous for clean. 

 

This is a very social media-driven story. How did that shape your reporting?

It’s hard because you don’t know who these people are. People were very hesitant about giving names because this is a black-market thing. They were going to get in trouble. I got names for people where I could. 

I was using my personal Instagram account for all of this. So it was a little nerve-wracking. 

My personal social accounts have pictures of my friends, and people who didn’t sign up to be journalists. I was more worried about their privacy. There’s no face behind these accounts, at least when you when you first establish contact with them. I was putting myself out there. 

I used my personal account because I think that followers are an important way of establishing realness online. Also, what was I going to do? Start an account just when I started this story? I’d have no followers and no posts. That would seem sketchy-looking. I thought my chances of actually getting people to correspond me were higher if I could just show them that I’m a real person who’s concerned about this.

The currency [for legitimacy] for these people was, How many followers does the account have? One account, which everyone was saying is the real Dank Vapes, had 48,000 followers at that point. You had to look for different signs of legitimacy that only really exist online, like, How many posts do they have? You’re doing beat reporting, but in Twitter DMs and Reddit DMs. Then I would follow up with phone calls afterwards when I wanted to really walk through things.

 

Because you were reporting on a black-market subject, it means you were setting your own goalposts for source legitimacy. How did you try to gain your readers’ trust? 

When you’re interacting with [sources] over social media, it can feel hard [for readers] to trust those sources. I wanted to really show the lengths to which we went to verify that they could trust this information. I tried to order [Dank Vapes] to my apartment. We ordered the boxes to our newsroom. In doing that, I was hoping that the reader would understand that if they’d wanted to fill those boxes with literally anything and sell them, they could have done it. We didn’t have FOIA documents. I wanted to prove that we had done everything we could to dig up what was happening with this brand.

 

I think that vaping in the media is ultimately less correct than it could be. I think [it’s important] to remember the role that black-market products play here. Conflating the two is not correct.

 

Did you have any concerns about explaining to people how to do something illegal?

It was so easy. If it had been even remotely hard to do those things, maybe. In some cases, it’s easier to buy a black-market vape cart than it is to buy a legal vape cart. So I didn’t really have fear of teaching somebody how to find Dank Vapes on the market. Also, the story was very much like, You really shouldn’t use these

 

How well do you think the media has covered these vaping-related issues?

I think that vaping in the media is ultimately less correct than it could be. I think [it’s important] to remember the role that black-market products play here. Conflating the two is not correct. You can’t compare a legal product that is licensed with something somebody makes in their garage, buys the boxes for online, and sells to somebody who has never met them before. They’re totally different.

 

After you published your story, the CDC came out with a warning, specifically naming Dank Vapes. How has the story continued to evolve since you published this first report?

While I was reporting this story, one of the big holdups when I was speaking to public health departments was that they didn’t know what was causing the illness. People were saying that Dank Vapes was causing the illness, this guy was on the record on local TV saying it—but that connection [by officials] wasn’t there as I was reporting this story.

The connection is now pretty solidly there. Now, the amount of people who are studying this has just exploded, and there’s a lot more doors to knock on and people who are really ready to dive in and talk about this than there were even a month ago.

By the way, they’re still selling their stuff. You could go on Twitter right now, or on Snapchat right now, you could buy a Dank Vape. I called the FDA and they said this is an open investigation. It looks like they are looking into the supply chain which is good, because this market is still around, it’s still going.

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Elizabeth Hewitt is a journalist who lives in Brooklyn. She previously reported on Congress and criminal justice for VTDigger.org. Follow her on Twitter @emhew.