What is the biggest marketplace for illegal antiquities? Social media, in particular Facebook. Only 15 years old, Facebook has revolutionized the way we exchange and consume ideas, information and merchandise. Yet in the last couple of years, there has been significant media attention on problems with data privacy breaching, misinformation, fake news, the proliferation of hate speech, election meddling and most recently, auto-generating videos of extremist propaganda. On top of all that, transnational criminal networks and terrorist supporters are raising money by looting historical sites, such as UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, and then selling them online to buyers all over the world including in the United States and Europe, through social media. Because of the rapid rise of technology giants, most legislation about the Internet is very outdated, fostering an environment that facilitates criminal activity.
With an estimated 2.77 billion social media users online, tech firms provide organized crime syndicates a huge audience reach with almost complete anonymity. Literally anyone with the desire, a cell phone or laptop, and some data can buy, sell, and trade cultural property online. This creates a decentralized and nearly democratized market, where small-scale and wholesale supplies are one and the same.
Whenever there is conflict or crisis, there is often looting. With the rise of social media the trafficking of illicit artifacts became even more widespread following the conflicts in the Middle East. Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq in particular have suffered from the expansion of terrorist and violent organizations, such as the Islamic State, which sees historical artifacts as something to exploit for money to fund their organizations. These artifacts include everything from smaller items to mosaics, statues and coins. Anything the Islamic State couldn’t sell, they destroyed. But they are not the only terrorist group to engage in the looting of cultural property, technology has opened a doors to a new era in terrorist financing.
Our members from ATHAR (Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research) Project Dr Amr Al-Azm and Katie Paul, have spent years going through social media posts to investigate the digital underworld of transnational trafficking, terrorism financing, and organized crime.
These criminal organizations operate in Facebook groups that number, in some cases, over 100,000 members. In just over a year, one group grew from nothing to over 50,000. Other groups offer “looting to order”, where people can ask for specific items that are then stolen. Within these groups, many of the profiles are avatars and they use code words to disguise activity. The actual transactions take place offline, out of public view.
To monitor illegal activity, Facebook uses an Artificial Intelligence system, which is imprecise. If they do become aware of a group participating in illegal activity, the group is simply dismantled and the criminals move to or create new groups while all of the valuable data in the previous groups is lost to deletion. More recently, Facebook announced that they deleted 49 of these groups, but the ATHAR Project questions that number, noting that of the nearly 100 they have been tracking, only five have been deleted.
Right now, most of the pressure on Facebook is over privacy, to which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced that the company will launch a new design for both its mobile app and website to emphasize interactions within private Facebook Groups. On its new home page, the Groups play a bigger and major part of the Facebook user experience. Facebook is also building Messenger and WhatsApp into platforms for all kinds of private interactions with end-to-end encryption to protect the privacy of its users. However, we’re concerned this will in fact facilitate the online marketplace of illegal goods.
The ATHAR Project proposes that Facebook work with experts and law enforcement to design a strategy for tackling the sale of looted antiquities on its social network. By deleting pages or groups, vital evidence is being destroyed, when it could be used to pursue the culprits.
The struggle to save the rich cultural heritage of the Middle East is daunting. As a powerful force in society today, Facebook has the responsibility stop organized crime from operating on its platforms. The company needs to do better. We are working to educate more people about the importance of this issue, and together, pressure the government to rapidly improve regulations and legislation.