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  • Writer's pictureVan Weyenbergh Fine Art

Do antiques traffickers use Facebook to sell their stolen merchandise? The Athar project.

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

The ATHAR Project , an investigative program on the illegal trade in antiquities, has just published a report on the black market of cultural goods from the Middle East and North Africa organized via Facebook. The study reveals how buyers and sellers use the basic tools of the network to organize their transactions, sometimes publicly.

The survey was conducted over two years by a group of anthropologists and heritage experts. It covers 95 groups specializing in antiquities trafficking that were created between December 2011, in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring", and January 2019. The composition of these groups ranged from 398 to 150,000 users as of May 5, 2019.

In total, nearly 2 million members have been identified, mostly located in the Middle East and North Africa, where the stolen goods originate, but also in America, Europe and China. Some act as intermediaries for terrorist organizations, the majority representing a vulnerable population whose illicit activity "is more of a survival than a crime . " The information was collected through public research and infiltration by a fake Facebook account as a passive observer. Access to these networks depends on their status. When creating a group, Facebook offers three: public, closed, secret.

This categorization depends on the degree of visibility of the group's activities, from full access to all Facebook users (public) to information exclusively reserved for its active members (secret). Of the 95 groups involved, 65 were closed, 28 public and only 2 secret.

The admission of a member can be done freely, or require a "sponsorship" as well as adequate answers to a questionnaire. The report states that new users often pay a fee, paid to administrators, when a sale is made through the group. The ATHAR Project specifies that this tax is inspired by Khoms, an Islamic tax set at 20% of income."This fee is most likely paid through the payment system of the Facebook Messenger application [the Facebook chat interface]," the report says.

On the Internet, traffickers use fake profiles posing as archaeologists or antique dealers. Thus they can exploit the Facebook algorithm that directs its users to pages with similar interests: "For each identified traffic group, three others were recommended by Facebook . " The study points out that this system is one of the key factors in the growth of digital traffic chains.

To make a purchase, purchasers publish a description of the desired objects (place, date, time). In comment, sellers submit their offers in the form of photographs of artifacts sometimes taken in situ, or provide advice on areas and methods of looting. During these exchanges, interlocutors use codes such as "analysis" or "evaluation" instead of "offer"or use emojis.

Some of these exchanges are directly visible on the group's publications. But often the function "comment" is disabled by administrators. This option forces users to go through the encrypted format of Messenger, by simply clicking on a label of the application. More discreet, this feature allows you to negotiate the price in private, usually in dollars.

The requested objects cover a wide field, from Hindu statues to religious relics to bronze daggers. An investigation focused on four groups based in Syria indicates that the old coins easily transportable and easy to resell, are the most sought after.

But how could the moderators of Facebook have allowed a black market of such magnitude to grow? Strange as it may seem, looted cultural goods are not part of the trade products banned by Facebook's internal charter, unlike drugs, for example. Facebook is not responsible for the content posted by its users, pursuant to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In early May 2019, however, following a BBC report on digital antiquities, Facebook removed 49 groups from its platform. But this way of doing things leads to "erasing evidence of war crimes"which may be used to initiate legal proceedings, denounces the report which also recalls that the deletions do not prevent the recreation of similar groups.

Instead, the survey urges Facebook to improve its tools to identify resellers and collaborate with expert authorities on the subject, as it is already beginning to do for terrorism.

CBSN VIDEO ( very important document ) from ATHAR website

Article published in the Journal des Arts.

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