Future Tense

Want to Buy Some Stolen Antiquities? Try Facebook.

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Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Somewhere in Yemen, a thief’s left hand grips a severed bronze head, rotating it for appraisal. His right hand holds a camera, which he uses to focus on the details of the figure. In spite of the poor lighting and shaky camerawork, the statue’s features are clear: coiled hair, crooked nose, hollow eyes. Once he’s uploaded the video to Facebook, it has plenty of company. Since at least 2014, when ISIS expanded its revenue streams to include the plunder of archeological sites in Syria and Iraq, Facebook has become a clearinghouse for looters and purveyors of stolen cultural artifacts.

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You might think a black market for antiquities would exist out of sight, a system of whispers and shadows requiring code words for entry. The reality is banal—disturbingly so. Accessing the black market for antiquities is no more difficult than requesting membership in the popular “Dogspotting” Facebook group. Facebook’s “Groups” feature lets users connect efficiently and (sort of) discretely to share the locations of loot like Egyptian coffins. According to the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project—the only group of its kind monitoring social media—Facebook is the wellspring of the modern illicit antiquities trade, where traffickers thrive because of the platform’s laissez-faire regulation.

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In June, after half a decade of persistent activism from archaeologists and terrorism experts and a U.N. Security Council report that cited Facebook as “a tool for the illicit trafficking of cultural property,” the social network updated its community standards—the official guidelines about which posts should get removed—to include a ban on selling, trading, and soliciting “historical artifacts.” Headlines praised Facebook for its “anti-looting crackdown,” and for taking a stance. This is a familiar refrain. Multiple times over the past decade, with begrudging acknowledgment, Facebook has nominally banned a number of illegal trades through its community guidelines.

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Alas, news of these crackdowns must never have reached traffickers, who continue to deal in human remains, illegal drugs, and endangered wildlife on the platform. Since the policy change, ATHAR has noted the continued growth of active Facebook trafficking groups—from 120 in June to more than 130 by November.

These groups  total more than 2 million members (though some may be part of more than one group), and they serve a dual function. Primarily, they are “traditional” black marketplaces, where prospective buyers can post requests alongside posts of looters detailing their finds. Community members express initial interest through comments, often speculating on the origin, age, and value of the pictured objects. Most, however, are browsers. Genuine shoppers complete the actual transaction behind the encrypted walls of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

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In addition, the groups function as a training ground for a new generation of looters. Experienced members—including those connected to violent extremist groups—share techniques, provide excavation tutorials, and offer pricing guidelines as a way to help amateurs expand the market. Meanwhile, the administrators of these groups—who often collect cuts from money exchanged in transactions—are highly connected individuals, with influence extending into the legitimate antiquities market in the West.

War is a primary facilitator of illegal trafficking on Facebook and beyond. Within the 95 Middle Eastern Facebook Groups analyzed by the ATHAR project in 2019, 36 percent of posts selling artifacts came from conflict zones and 44 percent came from countries bordering those zones. This is no coincidence. There has been ample documentation on the use of antiquities trafficking to fund operations of extremist organizations such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hurras Al-Din. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict—adopted as a result of Nazi looting in World War II—has long since made the “theft, pillage, or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property” illegal as a matter of international law. It is also, predictably, a federal crime in the United States to engage in black market dealings.

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So how has Facebook evaded accountability?

The 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230—drafted long before the advent of social media—protects internet platforms from liability for the actions of third-party posters. Facebook remains shielded even though the black market heavily depends on the platform’s predictive algorithms to lead buyers to new trafficking groups—not to mention the unambiguous illegality of the black marketeers’ activities. Also, because Facebook is a U.S. company, foreign governments lack the authority to moderate Facebook content. Nations hit hard by looting have to go through the U.S. State Department to petition for memorandums of understanding to limit imports to the U.S. of historical artifacts. But with the broad reach of social media, the success of such import restrictions is limited. Syria, one of only 17 countries with such an agreement, now sees historical artifacts being sold into Turkey before coming to the U.S. under false pretenses, despite FBI warnings.

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Unlike traditional cloak-and-dagger networks, however, the black market on Facebook is easily accessible to anyone who searches for it—including monitors and regulators. If just a handful of experts at ATHAR are capable of monitoring more than 2 million members of antiquities trafficking groups, there is no reason to believe Facebook’s claims about the intractability of regulating the problem itself. Facebook has the means to, at the very least, keep track of and limit the most egregious trafficking. By failing to act, Facebook facilitates the destruction of cultural heritage and enables terrorism. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.)

Policing the sale of severed heads of sculptures would pose no threat to Facebook’s bottom line. Fighting the destruction of world heritage would not hurt the company’s ad revenue. Facebook has every incentive to repair its increasingly tarnished reputation, made worse daily by its aiding and abetting of violence and viral falsehoods.

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Change to Facebook’s regulatory practices requires public outrage over the destruction of cultural property, over the abuse of vulnerable communities that have had their heritage held hostage and sold for component parts.

But this isn’t an intractable problem. ATHAR has already proved that a cost-efficient approach to curbing trafficking crime on Facebook exists. Facebook only needs to hire a handful of archeological experts to identify, document, and report black market activities—a drop in the bucket for a multibillion-dollar company.

Until then, the private collectors and institutions who receive decapitated Yemeni statues should thank their benefactor with a placard: “Looted courtesy of Facebook.”

Update, Dec. 10, 2020: This piece originally included a hypothetical about ISIS-looted artifacts sold via Facebook. The reference has been removed.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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