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Researchers say Facebook is deleting evidence of war crimes


On October 24, 2020, an art dealer in Dana, Libya posted a series of unusual advertisements. For sale: Greco-Roman statue, marble bust covered with a shawl. If it looks like it belongs to a museum, it is because it does exist. The seller posted a photo of the work in a private Facebook group dedicated to selling antiques.

The black market for looting goods on Facebook is booming. Although the company banned the sale of historical artifacts in June, many positions are in Arabic, and Facebook lacks the expertise to properly implement its new policies.

When Facebook was able to identify groups that did not comply with its guidelines, experts said the company simply deleted them, thereby deleting important documents for researchers studying stolen artworks. “This is important evidence of repatriation work and war crimes,” said Katie Paul, co-director of the Attar project. “Facebook created a problem, instead of turning it into something they might help, it made the problem worse.”

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The impact goes far beyond the theft of art. Since 2014, looted antiques have been the main source of funding for terrorist organizations such as ISIS.

The Middle East is rich in cultural relics, and there is no control over drug trafficking and arms sales in the market for stolen goods.

The seller of the Greco-Roman statue posted an ad in the Facebook group, which has 5,000 to 18,000 members. There, traffickers live to stream their robberies, exchanging tips on digging and finding buyers who are still underground. Athar is currently monitoring 130 groups dedicated to trafficking in antiques.

A Syrian group with 340,000 members has posts showing that the looters found the mosaic. In the comments, Athar recorded a situation where one user said that the mosaic should not be removed, while another user smiled and answered with an emoji expression: “Die in the country’s history.”

Inactive conflict zones, trafficking in cultural relics is a war crime, and this problem is particularly serious. Samuel Hardy, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute in Rome, who specializes in cultural heritage and conflict, said: “It’s really irritating and problematic.” “When Facebook gets people’s self-posting evidence, we Not only has it lost the ability to track cultural property and return it to the victimized community, but it has also lost hope of identifying and stopping criminals who profit from it.”


Facebook is not the only platform that preserves evidence for research groups like Athar while regulating content. YouTube has also been criticized for removing extremist content that researchers are trying to study.

Although both companies sometimes retain evidence at the request of law enforcement agencies, this policy did not help most academic researchers.

“We are not saying that all of this content must be kept public forever,” Jeff Deutch, a researcher at the Syrian Archives, told Time magazine, recording videos of human rights violations.

“But the important thing is that these contents must be archived so that researchers, human rights organizations, scholars, and lawyers can access them for some kind of legal accountability.”

On Facebook, this problem has existed for many years. Those who try to study the company’s advertising targeting tools are also frustrated by their reluctance to share data with academics.

As far as art traffickers are concerned, Facebook’s move to privacy has brought unexpected benefits because criminals use secret groups and encrypted messages for illegal activities. Athar wrote in a report: “This, in turn, makes Facebook the wild west of social media, providing opportunities for violent extremist organizations and criminal groups to conduct their business in a clear view of the situation. .”

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