Mummified Body Parts Among Artifacts Now Banned on Facebook
Following a 2019 BBC News exposé and an academic campaign, the social media giant Facebook has now banned all sales of ancient artifacts on the social network, fearing stolen and looted treasures from Iraq and Syria are being traded on its platforms. Items now censored from Facebook marketplace include ancient scrolls, manuscripts, sculptures, mosaics and even mummified body parts.
Instagram and Facebook Tackle Illegal Artifact Trade
These recent changes to Facebook’s Community Standards were released by the California-based social media firm on June 23, 2020, and Facebook public policy manager Greg Mandel told The BBC that its users have been instructed under the “regulated goods” section to not post content that contravenes this new rule related to historical artifacts.
Active looting post from Facebook, showing artifacts in situ. (ATHAR Project)
Mandel also told the BBC that historical artifacts hold “significant personal and cultural value for communities across the globe, but their sale often results in harmful behavior.” This is why the social network aims to keep these artifacts and its users safe by prohibiting the “exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artefacts on Facebook and Instagram,” explained Mandel.
Last year, Egyptian security forces arrested a man for attempting to smuggle mummified body parts from Egypt to Belgium, after a sale was arranged through Facebook. Thousands of other sales of looted artifacts have also taken place through the social media platform.
Artificial Intelligence-Powered Online Artifact Cops
The BBC’s 2019 investigation presented shocking evidence that Roman mosaics had been photographed in situ in Syria, before being hacked out of the ground and put up for sale on Facebook. A Daily Mail article says many other illegal archaeological activities and dealings in illegal artifacts included requests for Islamic-era manuscripts to be made available for prospective buyers in Turkey, loot-to-order requests, and posts sharing ideas for digging up archaeological sites for profit on the black market.
Enhancing their strike at illegal artifact traders and the associated multi-national criminal gangs, according to The BBC, the social media firm is also developing artificial intelligence-powered systems which will analyze huge amounts of content per second, hunting in its own database for users violating the new policy based on keywords and image matching. According to the Daily Mail, “following the exposé, Facebook has reportedly removed 49 groups engaging in such practices”, although some academics have reported that the trade continues despite the social media crackdown.
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Scholars Question If Facebook Is Doing Enough
While Facebook’s recent policy updates certainly will help this awful situation, the BBC spoke with archaeologist Amr al-Azm, from Ohio's Shawnee State University, who fears that relying on user reports and artificial intelligence “is simply not enough.”
Prof Al-Azm suggested Facebook must invest in teams of experts to identify and remove networks “rather than playing whack-a-mole with individual posts.” The archaeologist added that rather than deleting content that violates its Facebook Community Standards, the online firm should be archiving everything for investigators, because it is “vital evidence for ensuring the repatriation of these objects if they appear on the market.”
The ATHAR Project is monitoring more than 120 Facebook black market groups trafficking in ancient, and often illegal, artifacts. In the image a user in Oran, Algeria, posts an image of a Roman relief in a Facebook group for antiquities which has more than 373,000 members. (ATHAR Project).
If there’s one thing Facebook gets right, it’s user statistics. Every time users log in to their profile, and visit groups or pages, everything, including the user’s location, is recorded and built into their background profiles, which ultimately find their way to marketeers.
According to Professor Al-Azm, this user data shows that the illegal antiquities trade on Facebook greatly affects the Middle East and North Africa, where over 120 Facebook groups are currently being supervised for their connections with “looting and trafficking activity.”
The largest illegal group identified on Facebook had about 150,000 members this time last year. It now has over 437,000 members. While rationalists might point towards the recent global economic downturn in the aftermath of the first wave of coronavirus crisis, as the cause of this increase, in his interview with the BBC Prof Al-Azm highlights that the illegal artifacts black market of stolen artifacts “funds criminal organizations, warlords, and radical extremists, and 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.”
Top image: Mummified feet. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie