Illicit antiquities trade on Facebook appears to have the greatest reach in the Middle East and North Africa, according to experts monitoring the trafficking of historical artifacts.
Social media giant Facebook decided on Tuesday to ban the sale of historical artifacts on its website, citing mounting concerns over the looting of antiquities from conflict zones and the exploitation of archaeological sites left empty amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The June 23 notice came in the form of an update of Facebook’s Community Standards that prohibits “content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, donate, gift or solicit historical artifacts.” The ban also applies to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Facebook’s Community Standards previously included a policy that banned the sale of “stolen historical artifacts,” but the update now encompasses all historical artifacts.
“We’ve long had rules preventing the sale of stolen artifacts. To keep these artifacts and our users safe, we’ve been working to expand our rules, and starting today, we now prohibit the exchange, sale, or purchase of all historical artifacts on Facebook and Instagram,” said Facebook Public Policy Manager Greg Mandel in a statement.
“We recognize that the sale of historical artifacts can result in harmful behavior, and we would like to establish clear parameters to distinguish what should and should not be sold or traded on the platform,” the statement continued.
The new policy defines historical artifacts as “rare items of significant historical, cultural, or scientific value,” including ancient coins, manuscripts, mosaics, scrolls, and tombstones.
Facebook’s previous insufficient response
A 2019 investigation by the BBC into the sale of historical artifacts on Facebook found groups taking “loot-to-order” requests and exchanging tips on how to dig up sites.
After BBC published the findings, Facebook removed 49 groups from the platform, but a report by Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project (ATHAR) last year further detailed Facebook’s dark underbelly and the continuation of trafficking activities.
The US organization’s report, titled “Facebook’s Black Market in Antiquities,” found at least 95 groups on the social media platform — with over 1.9 million combined members — dedicated to the sale of historical artifacts. The report says buyers and sellers communicate in coded language and make transactions after negotiating on an encrypted app.
“Facebook offers a veritable digital toolbox for traffickers to utilize, including photo and video uploads, live streaming, disappearing ‘Stories’, payment mechanisms, and encrypted messaging. Facebook is the perfect platform for a one-stop-shop black market,” the ATHAR report says.
“Illicit antiquities trade on Facebook appears to have the greatest reach in the Middle East and North Africa where we are currently monitoring over 120 Facebook groups developed solely for looting and trafficking activity,” said Professor Amr al-Azm, a co-director of the ATHAR project, to the BBC.
He added that activity on the pages of Facebook groups the organization monitors has increased: “The largest group we identified had roughly 150,000 members this time last year—now it has more than 437,000.”
Crisis and conflict motivate illicit trade
He suggested the uptick may be the result of COVID-19 and linked economic crises. The pandemic has exacerbated unemployment and financial insecurity while emptying archeological sites of researchers and occupying police forces, leaving artifacts unguarded and ripe for the taking.
Additionally, looters have for years exploited conflict zones to excavate antiquities, with prime examples being ISIS-ravaged historical sites in Iraq and Syria. Traffickers in the region continue to funnel stolen goods through Turkey to be put up for sale online despite the Turkish government clampdown on such activities.
Looting can also fund criminal organizations, warlords, and extremist groups, al-Azm said. “It’s happening on the same site in the same digital space that you welcome into your home and [use to] share photos of your children.”
Facebook has removed dozens of artifacts trade groups from its site since Tuesday and says it is developing algorithmic systems to identify black market content through images and keywords.
The policy update is a welcome development in ATHAR’s fight against artifacts trafficking, but for al-Azm, “relying on user reports and Artificial Intelligence is simply not enough.”
He suggested that rather than simply removing posts that violate the new Community Standards, Facebook should also create a digital archive of the artifacts put for sale to record evidence of trafficking.
“Facebook is the largest social media company in the world and it needs to invest in teams of experts to identify and remove networks rather than playing whack-a-mole with individual posts and accounts,” he said to Euronews. “Otherwise, nothing will change.”