Trust Factors in the Social Figuration of Online Drug Trafficking: A Qualitative Content Analysis on a Darknet Market

Published date01 May 2023
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 39(2) 167 –184
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862231159996
Trust Factors in the Social
Figuration of Online Drug
Trafficking: A Qualitative
Content Analysis on a
Darknet Market
Ákos Szigeti1, Richard Frank2, and Tibor Kiss1
The rise in illicit drug trafficking on darknet markets (DNMs) was boosted by those
restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This study aims to put this trend
into context by exploring the characteristics of vendors’ services and reputations and
understand how products are advertised and what customers tend to value. Qualitative
content analysis was conducted on a sample (n = 100) randomly selected from 6,357
product descriptions and a sample (n = 500) randomly selected from 34,619 reviews.
Both samples are from products found in the drug category of the darknet market
Dark0de Reborn. On the supply side, vendors tended to provide basic information
on the drugs, a mention of their high quality, the speed and stealth of delivery, their
availability for responding to messages, the effects of the drugs, and sometimes even
instructions for use. Regarding the demand side, customers usually praised the quality
of the product, mentioned the speed and stealth-secure packaging of delivery as
essentials, and expressed only a small number of issues. These results support the
applicability of Norbert Elias’ social figuration theory in which the interdependencies
of the actors are fueled by trust. This theoretical frame sheds light on the social value
of the community of DNMs. Furthermore, the findings formulate a robust hypothesis
for future research about the previously undervalued role of delivery providers.
darknet markets, drug trafficking, trust factors, social figuration, qualitative content
1University of Public Service, Budapest, Hungary
2Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Ákos Szigeti, Doctoral School of Law Enforcement, University of Public Service, H-1083 Budapest, 2
Ludovika tér, Budapest 1083, Hungary.
1159996CCJXXX10.1177/10439862231159996Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeSzigeti et al.
168 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 39(2)
The restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have further
boosted an already decade-long increase in the volume of illicit drug trafficking on
online anonymous marketplaces designed to facilitate these transactions, called dark-
net markets (DNMs; European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction &
European Police Office [EMCDDA & Europol], 2020; “World Drug Report,” 2021).
Although drug dealers who operate through face-to-face meetings bought less from
darknet markets under restrictions, the number of individual consumer DNM orders
increased significantly during this period (EMCDDA & Europol, 2020). Understanding
the process of DNM drug trafficking and the (trust) factors affecting customer behav-
ior not only helps to put this trend into context but is also essential information for
criminal justice practitioners and policymakers. Analyzing online data collected from
darknet markets is an invaluable element of designing evidence-based policies both
for monitoring activities on these platforms and for planning law enforcement inter-
ventions (Broséus et al., 2016). In relation to monitoring, Jardine (2018) claims that it
is difficult to measure the threat posed by the Darknet because counting the supply
side is easy but inaccurate, while counting the demand side would be much more accu-
rate but tremendously difficult. Therefore, Jardine (2018) suggests using vendor repu-
tational data (among other sources) as an element of darknet threat metrics. Regarding
interventions, damaging trust in vendors is one of the tactical elements of law enforce-
ment operations against DNMs (Afilipoaie & Shortis, 2018), providing yet another
reason to further examine and understand the structure of these data.
The purpose of this exploratory study was to explore the characteristics of the ser-
vices and reputations of vendors by analyzing the content of a sample of DNM product
listings and user reviews. To meet this goal, this article first provides a general intro-
duction to the Darknet and DNMs and then summarizes previous research results on
factors affecting illicit drug trafficking on DNMs and on the communities of DNMs.
Then, it describes how and on what sample was this qualitative content analysis imple-
mented. In line with the exploratory nature of this study, the article reports results in a
descriptive form and discusses the findings in a separate chapter. After supplementing
all these with a thorough presentation of the limitations of this online qualitative study,
it will conclude with theoretical remarks, policy implications, and future research
The Darknet and DNMs
The Darknet, as its name suggests, is considered the dark side of the global internet.
Darknet is part of the deep web, the nonindexed part of the internet; its pages cannot
be accessed by traditional search engines (such as Google or Microsoft Bing).
However, while other content on the deep web is typically accessed by simply logging
in to a service provider (such as an email client or corporate intranet), accessing dark-
net content requires an anonymous browser. An example of this is The Onion Router
(TOR), which was originally developed by the U.S. Navy. Their goal was to encrypt

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