Instagram Just Created Reporting for Endangered Species — Almost One Year After it Was Listed in Their Community Guidelines
For years, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram have hidden behind their Community Standards as a way to avoid blame for a wide array of illegal content on the platforms. Both platforms, which are owned by Facebook Inc., have relied on their users to report content — including criminal activity — rather than looking for the content proactively. The illegal sale of endangered species on Instagram is no exception. On February 23, 2020, as team members of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO) used Instagram’s content reporting feature to report accounts selling drugs through the platform, they noticed a new regulated goods reporting category for accounts: endangered animals.
It’s a big step to see endangered species finally appear on the reporting function, it shows that years of pressure from researchers and advocacy groups pushing the company to detect wildlife trafficking on their platform is working. The sale of endangered species has been banned on Instagram since May 2019 according to the platform’s Community Guidelines. Community Standards — or in Instagram’s case, Community Guidelines — serve as a set of “rules” users should abide by to operate on the platforms. Enforcement of those rules is a different issue entirely, and Facebook Inc. has made little effort to police the content that not only violates its own set of rules, but national and international law.
While this update is an important one, it’s worth noting that Instagram did this quietly. In fact, it took Instagram 10 months to add this feature after endangered species were added to their “follow the law” section of their Community Guidelines. A second check of Instagram’s reporting mechanisms on March 1, 2020 showed that the feature for reporting posts is more inclusive than for reporting accounts, more broadly mentioning “animals” rather than just “endangered animals.” It appears that the threshold of reporting is higher for accounts, and only endangered species are enough for an entire profile’s illegal activity to be taken into consideration.
On December 4, 2017, after extensive investigations by National Geographic into how social media may be fueling animal abuse, Instagram posted a blog about its efforts to issue warnings on animal hashtags. The blog on Instagram’s official website explicitly noted, “Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts are not allowed on Instagram.” But was that actually the case?
An examination of the internet archive, which has extensive recordings of Instagram’s Community Guidelines, shows that as of December 6, 2017, two days after the blog post, neither animals nor endangered species were listed — or even mentioned at all — in the company’s rules. The only mention of wildlife was several clicks in to the reporting menu for Community Guidelines under the section for “Exploitation” — but unlike the descriptors for child exploitation and human trafficking, Instagram gave no instructions on what users could do aside from avoiding tourist photos with animals, and it never suggested the content be reported. And while the post noted that Instagram worked with wildlife groups “to identify and take action on photos or videos that violate our community guidelines, such as posts depicting animal abuse, poaching or the sale of endangered animals and their parts,” the sale of endangered animals was never actually against their Community Guidelines.
Animals would not appear in Instagram’s Community Guidelines for “following the law” until nearly a year and a half after their blog post. Web archives show that endangered species were only added to Instagram’s policy on May 16, 2019 — the day before Endangered Species Day 2019. The web archives of their Community Guidelines up through May 15, 2019 do not include endangered species or mention of animals. While Instagram told National Geographic that the sale of endangered animals and parts were against their policy in the magazine’s December 4, 2017 story, it appears that was not the case. Instagram’s public relations team seems to have gotten ahead of the company’s own published policies.
A look at the wildlife currently being sold through Instagram shows that the company’s efforts may be too little too late — if they are making attempts to police content at all. For instance, a cursory search in English for #monkeyforsale reveals a post from just last week asking $7,000 for a squirrel monkey. This particular hashtag did include a warning about protecting wildlife — but it did not block users from proceeding to the posts.
Even more disturbing is what is turned up in languages other than English — particularly considering that much of the illegal wildlife trade, and endangered species in particular, takes place outside of the U.S. For instance, in 2018, the Cheetah Conservation Fund found that social media played a major role in the trafficking of cheetahs online — identifying roughly 20% of the global cheetah population for sale on social media.
The issue of illegal cheetah sales on Instagram specifically was raised as early as 2016, when VICE published an article on wildlife protection groups seeking to stop the online trafficking of the species. At that time there were believed to be only 7,100 cheetahs left in the world. A cursory search by ACCO found hundreds for sale on Instagram.
A search for the Arabic hashtag for “cheetah for sale” not only fails to turn up any warning, but produces 865 posts of cheetahs and other endangered species for sale through the platform using that hashtag.
Each of the posts leads to accounts where wildlife is exclusively trafficked. The phone numbers for the users are included. The traffickers’ communication medium of choice: WhatsApp, another company owned by Facebook.
One user, whose profile description includes the hashtag for “cheetahs for sale,” has been actively selling endangered species on Instagram since April 2015. His entire account history is dedicated to posts offering rare and endangered wildlife for sale and his profile has gained over 2,600 followers as of March 1, 2020. The profile also includes his phone number and explicitly requests communications through WhatsApp (واتساب).
According to Communications Decency Act Section 230 (CDA 230), technology platforms are expected to moderate illegal activity at their own discretion in return for immunity from liability for crimes carried out using their platforms. With no consequences for facilitating crime, there is no incentive for companies to take action.
For years, mountains of evidence from researchers, experts, advocacy organizations and journalists has shown Facebook and its family of companies continue to fail when it comes to policing trafficking activity on their platform. Instagram and its parent Facebook Inc. must be held accountable for continuing to serve as a major hub of trafficking and illegal activity. The dark web is no longer needed to traffic endangered species, drugs, or other illegal content. Now, it can all be found on the biggest black market in the world, courtesy of Facebook Inc.