Facebook Antiquities Looters Remain Active as Pandemic Rages On

Katie A. Paul
Apr 7, 2020 · 3 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed much of the world online as countries move to enforce quarantine and social distancing measures. But as some countries shift police units to focus on enforcing isolation measures during the crisis, they have left other areas with less protection, including archaeological sites. Posts in Facebook Groups for antiquities trafficking in the Middle East and North Africa show that looting at archaeological sites continues while authorities are occupied elsewhere.

For years, Facebook has served as a massive outlet for antiquities looters and traffickers as they seek to feed material into a widening global network of buyers — all at the click of a button. The ATHAR Project has previously reported how traffickers on Facebook utilize the platform, posting photos and videos of illicit artifacts for sale.

A user posts images of active looting and the artifacts he found — (right) One of the full-size images from his post shows artifacts still in situ. Source: ATHAR Project

A common tactic for antiquities traffickers on Facebook seeking to prove that their future offers are authentic is to post active looting photos. Others post photos of illegal excavation in progress to crowdsource information from members of their Facebook trafficking Group about the viability of their chosen looting site. Over the past two months as the pandemic crisis has grown, ATHAR Project has observed an increase in both of these types of posts.

A user in war-torn Idlib, Syria posts images of freshly-looted ceramics in a Facebook antiquities trafficking group monitored by ATHAR Project. The group has more than 274,000 members — Facebook’s algorithm identifies this user as a “conversation starter” meaning that he posts frequently and generates replies. Source: ATHAR Project

The increase in Facebook posts of illegal excavation and freshly-looted artifacts could be the result of a number of factors:

- Looting at locations of archaeological sites increases during a crisis — and we’re in one now. The increase can in part be attributed to authorities being occupied with trying to regain stability, leaving both sites and museums are at greater risk. The Arab Spring spawned a surge in looting at archaeological sites across countries in the MENA as they faced socio-political turmoil.

- Seasonal changes can affect site looting, and spring is a great time to be outdoors. Summer months in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East are too hot to loot sites without medical risk. In my previous research on looting in Egypt, I found patterns in archaeological site looting that indicated increases at sites during spring and fall.

- More people around the world have access to mobile phones and internet, social media comes with that. In 2013, there were 56 million Middle East active users on Facebook, by 2019 that number more than doubled to 164 million. More users join Facebook every day, an increase in activity means there will naturally be increase in crime on the platform.

The apparent increase in a daily stream of looting posts on Facebook is likely the result of a combination of all of these factors. The coronavirus mitigation measures coincidently hit the Middle East during prime seasonal conditions for looting. Facebook not only has its highest MENA user base to date, it also does not have any policies that prohibit the trafficking of activities, which means the content is not moderated or targeted by the platform.

A user in Tunis, Tunisia — a country currently facing a strict COVID-19 lockdown — posts images of active looting at an archaeological site in a group with over 169,000 members. The user is seeking information on what he found. Source: ATHAR Project

While antiquities are not regulated on Facebook, items that are banned from sale on the platform — such as human remains — see no action or moderation. Even during periods of national stability, Facebook fails to enforce its own Community Standards.

A user in a Facebook antiquities trafficking group offers a child mummy for sale. When he is shamed by other users commenting about such grave disturbance being haram, the original post author turns off comments but keeps his sale listing active. Source: ATHAR Project

Now, as the company grapples with managing the flood of COVID-19 misinformation on the platform, its already poor enforcement efforts leave little room for effective moderation. Facebook’s ability to police its platform is minimal at a time when police on the ground in the MENA region and around the world are stretched thin, a perfect storm for traffickers.

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