Facebook’s Community Standards Game: Antiquities Trafficking

Katie A. Paul
May 1, 2020 · 4 min read

Facebook just released its Community Standards updates for May 2020, an event that only comes once every few months (or news cycles depending on the crisis). The change included updates to the section on Regulated Goods, the rules that dictate what types of items can and cannot be sold on the platform. Unfortunately, the sale of stolen and looted artifacts are still not mentioned in Facebook’s Community Standards.

The ATHAR Project and its co-founders have been raising the issue of Facebook’s black markets in antiquities for nearly two years to no avail. The scale of the illicit antiquities trade on Facebook in the MENA region alone is shocking: 11 Facebook groups with between 100,000 and 370,000 members, dozens more have over 20,000 members, with groups seeing hundreds of new looting and trafficking posts per day. In the last month and a half, ATHAR has identified five new MENA-based Facebook groups for looting and trafficking antiquities have been created. One of the new groups reached over 2,100 members in less than 30 days.

A user listed in Oran, Algeria posts an image of a Roman relief laying in a field in a Facebook group for antiquities looting and trafficking with more than 373,000 members — the largest of the more than 120 Facebook black market groups monitored by the ATHAR Project. (Screen capture taken on April 30, 2020). Source: ATHAR Project / Facebook

The looting and trafficking of antiquities can fuel terrorism, organized crime, and in some cases constitutes a war crime. Facebook serves as ground-zero for the illicit trade of artifacts in the digital world.

In June 2019, ATHAR Project released an extensive report on the presence of large antiquities trafficking groups from just the Middle East and North Africa on Facebook (but the problem extends far beyond that region). The report included specific recommendations for how Facebook could stem the antiquities trafficking on its platform, among them the inclusion of a Community Standards policy addressing the illicit trade.

  1. Facebook’s User Agreement and Community Standards should be updated to include prohibiting subscribers from communicating with organized crime, not just prohibiting the criminals themselves.
  2. Facebook should add “illicit cultural property” to the “Promoting or Publicizing Crime” section of their Community Standards and to their Commerce Policies as prohibited items.
  3. Facebook should work with law enforcement to incorporate coded phrases and transliterated misspellings into their AI monitoring methods for identifying traffickers online.
  4. Facebook should work in partnership with subject matter experts and authorities to actively support the development of counter-narratives to trafficking and looting to implement strategies designed to disrupt the trafficking of antiquities.

None of those recommendations have been adopted to date.

But should we be surprised? The looting and trafficking of antiquities is a global issue that has found a comfortable home with a wide reach on Facebook, nestled among other illicit trades that are prohibited by the company’s policies but not effectively moderated. The sale of drugs, guns, wildlife, and even COVID-era PPE have all been banned by Facebook and Instagram but remain actively trafficked on the platform.

A user listed in Tripoli, Lebanon traffics coins, pottery, and Roman glass in a Facebook black market group for antiquities on April 19, 2020. The post’s intention is clear: “For sale Lebanon.” Source: ATHAR Project / Facebook

Facebook’s efforts to address crime on their platform are such a joke that we have decided to literally make a game out of it.

Introducing: Countering Crime FaceBingo. ATHAR Project is working with our partners at the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO) to raise awareness about the ongoing trafficking we track on Facebook every day.

The first Friday of every month ATHAR Project will tweet a thread (@ATHARProject) of 10 screenshots showing Facebook-based activity related to looting and trafficking of antiquities that have been posted on the platform over the previous month.

Joining the game is easy, all you need is a web browser to link to our official bingo card and you’re in! (Don’t worry, we’ll never ask you to download an app that might have questionable data-sharing practices or violate your privacy.) We’ll share the bingo link for Countering Crime FaceBingo: Antiquities Trafficking each month where you can generate your unique ATHAR bingo card and play along at home.

(Center) An example of the card generated for Countering Crime FaceBingo: Antiquities Trafficking using Bingo Baker. (Left) Close up of artifacts offered for sale on Facebook by a user in Tripoli, Lebanon on April 19, 2020. (Right) Close up of mosaic posted to Facebook trafficking group while still in situ by user in Gharyan, Libya on April 18, 2020.

If you get a bingo what do you win?! Nothing, because no one wins while pieces of our history are being trafficked with impunity on Facebook.

ATHAR Project will run this first Friday bingo every month until we see a change in Facebook’s policies to address antiquities trafficking in its Community Standards. But don’t worry, the game doesn’t have to end if Facebook institutes a policy change. Policies are only as good as their enforcement, and we’ll continue to tweet our bingo thread each month to show how the looting and trafficking are being addressed.

This game is not limited to the black market in antiquities, our partners at ACCO follow illicit trades across Facebook and Instagram that continue amid ineffective moderation and low enforcement. We’ll be working together to ensure that Facebook’s illicit trades are monitored. Facebook may not care about these issues, but we do.

Follow us @ATHARProject on Twitter to play along!

Alliance to Counter Crime Online

Fighting organized crime activity on social media

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