The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
On June 23, Facebook announced that it had updated its community standards to include a ban on “content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, donate, gift or solicit historical artifacts.” The policy change, which signals a major shift in Facebook’s position on the trade in cultural property, comes in response to calls of alarm from archaeologists and terrorism experts over the illegal trade in looted Middle Eastern antiquities that has flourished on the platform in recent years.
Antiquities trafficking has taken place on Facebook since around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. But the platform emerged as a major hub of cultural pillaging in 2014, when the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) began institutionalizing the plunder of archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria. Facebook’s private groups and sophisticated algorithms—which allow looters in conflict zones from Libya to Yemen to connect with each other and with buyers and to crowdsource excavation techniques and authenticate discoveries—have helped make antiquities trafficking an increasingly important source of funding for terrorist groups.
Facebook has long prohibited the sale of stolen goods. But the company did little to enforce its policies, relying mainly on users to report suspected violations for review by its content moderators—who lacked the specialized training required to correctly identify antiquities and determine whether or not they were stolen. Last week, thanks to the new rules, historical artifacts—a category that, according to Facebook, includes ancient funerary objects and scrolls, engraved seals, mummified body parts, and other “rare items of significant historical, cultural or scientific value”—have joined drugs and firearms on the list of items whose sale is forbidden altogether.
As scholars who have spent years tracking the illicit trade in Middle Eastern artifacts and studying its role in financing terrorism, we welcome Facebook’s decision as an indication that it is beginning to acknowledge the scale of this dangerous problem. But we have grave concerns about the company’s planned approach to combating antiquities trafficking. Facebook’s new policy, while more proactive than its previous one, fails to acknowledge that because antiquities trafficking is a war crime under international humanitarian law, the company should therefore preserve as evidence—and not simply destroy—the material it removes from its site.
In 2011, Facebook helped catalyze the Arab Spring, turning scattered local protests into a viral global phenomenon. The uprisings toppled authoritarian leaders and ignited political debate in countries where it had been suppressed for decades. But the unrest also destabilized whole societies and—in Libya, Syria, and Yemen—mutated into bloody civil wars that attracted an array of armed state and nonstate actors that continue to sow chaos in the region nearly a decade later. These conflicts have helped empower a new generation of terrorist and transnational criminal groups, whose members have proved highly adept at exploiting social media platforms to promote their ideologies and finance their activities.
Successful terrorist organizations develop diverse income streams, and the sprawling digital black markets that Web-savvy extremists have created on Facebook and other online platforms have allowed them to cash in on the sale of everything from drugs and human body parts to endangered animals. Among the biggest black-market growth areas is the trade in rare artifacts. And compared with the vast sums spent on combating narcotics smuggling, for example, global efforts to counter antiquities trafficking remain spotty; in some countries, the trade in looted Middle Eastern artifacts is still largely unregulated. For terrorists and criminal groups operating in the conflict zones of the Middle East, where thousands of years of dense, continuous human habitation have left the remains of successive civilizations layered beneath the ground, excavating and selling ancient artifacts is both easier and less risky than other illicit trades, and the demand for looted goods is surprisingly durable.
As we have previously documented in our research for the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project (ATHAR), Facebook has played a central facilitating role in every step of the illegal antiquities trade. Traffickers use Facebook’s “secret groups” function—which creates groups that don’t appear in searches and can be joined only via invitation from existing members—to create private forums where they can pool knowledge about digging techniques and excavation sites, answer loot-to-order requests, and tempt buyers with images of recently unearthed objects. Especially security-conscious looters can use Facebook Stories to post photos and videos that will automatically disappear after 24 hours. Facebook Messenger offers traffickers encrypted messaging through its “secret conversations” function and provides a mechanism to process digital payments; Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, which is expected to launch next year, promises to make these transactions smoother still.
Selling looted artifacts is less risky than other illicit trades, and demand is surprisingly durable.
These tools have also enabled the rise of a sophisticated and highly lucrative black market in looted antiquities. Although reliably gauging the total value of the trade is impossible—ISIS doesn’t publish quarterly earnings reports—the listed prices of stolen artifacts posted for sale on Facebook that we studied in our report for ATHAR ran as high as $200,000. One analysis that examined the role of middlemen in Saudi Arabia in the trafficking of antiquities from war-torn Yemen found that, between January 2015 and December 2018, nearly $6 million worth of artifacts were shipped to the United States alone.
Facebook’s new policy banning the sale of historical artifacts is a welcome first step in that it broadly expresses greater concern about the destruction of priceless cultural heritage. But the company’s plan to stamp out antiquities trafficking promises to rob the world of something nearly as valuable: evidence of looted artifacts. In order to disrupt the black-market trade, Facebook has said that it will remove from its platform any content that violates its new rules. But due to data privacy concerns, it does not intend to preserve any of the removed content.
Unfortunately, in many instances, the photos and videos uploaded by looters and traffickers—often taken in situ, while the artifacts are still in the ground—are the only evidence we have that these objects ever existed. These photos and videos are important records, digital evidence that will be of great value to scholars and potentially critical to future repatriation efforts. As of this publication, a full week after Facebook’s new community standards were announced, dozens of groups dedicated to trading in Middle Eastern antiquities—some of which boast hundreds of thousands of members—continue to operate openly. Facebook should indeed remove them from its platform, but it is essential that the digital evidence of the antiquities that appeared in their forums be preserved.
This is all the more important when the artifacts have been trafficked from countries in conflict. The trade in stolen Middle Eastern antiquities that helps to fuel the region’s continuing conflicts is also a war crime—an explicit violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which prohibits the “theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property.”
War crimes against cultural property are difficult to prosecute. It wasn’t until 2016 that the first case built around the destruction of cultural heritage—brought against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Malian militant belonging to the terrorist group Ansar al-Din—was heard by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The prosecution relied on YouTube videos as evidence to prove Mahdi’s role in the destruction of historic buildings in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
Social media evidence has also been used in other war crimes cases—including the 2017 ICC trial of the Libyan National Army commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli for atrocities involving the execution of prisoners. Videos uploaded directly to Facebook were critical evidence in the case; had Facebook simply deleted the videos, Werfalli might never have stood trial.
War crimes tribunals often convene many years after a conflict, and a digital archive would ensure that photos and videos are preserved as evidence and can be used for research purposes long after they are detected by algorithms or reported by users and removed. Although developing an archive of this evidence may be challenging, it isn’t out of reach for the world’s largest social network. A model for such an archive already exists: the Facebook Ad Library, which preserves advertisements on political topics or issues of national interest years after they have been removed from the platform. Facebook was the first social media company to implement a political ad library, compelling competitors like Snapchat to follow suit.
Facebook now has a chance to take the lead again. The innovations that made the platform so essential to antiquities traffickers across the Middle East’s conflict zones have also created an enormous repository of information about world heritage that will be of great value to future generations. At a time when Facebook is under scrutiny for its outsize role in culture and politics, the company should take this clear opportunity to do the right thing.
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