By Lucy Siegel.

Social media allows us to connect in a matter of seconds with people all over the world, ranging from fan pages discussing niche interests to hashtags used to organize political protests. However, illegal activity through social media is made easier by the anonymous nature of virtual interactions. The black market has made its way to sites like Facebook, where illegal items are publicly advertised and sold on online marketplaces, including looted antiquities.

The Problem: Illegal Artifacts for Sale

In July of 2017, the arts and crafts supplies store Hobby Lobby came under fire after multiple occasions of illegal antiquities trafficking.[1] With thousands of artifacts and multiple lawsuits involving specific dealers and well known auction houses, the reality of the global antiquities trafficking trade entered the public eye. Hobby Lobby ended up in trouble by failing to secure reliable provenance.[2] When an antiquity, a collectable object of certain age and artistic value, is offered for sale, savvy buyers verify title and authenticity of the piece by checking its provenance, or the record of all previous owners of an object artwork.[3] It helps buyers understand the ownership history of a work and confirms the seller is legally in possession of the piece and able to sell it. In the Hobby Lobby instance, shady provenance and unreliable dealers allowed black market artifacts to be exchanged across continents. The revenue from the sale of illegal antiquities, meaning cultural items trafficked by museum robbers and archaeological site looters, is estimated to be between $3 and $5 billion annually.[4]

Looting and Selling Explained

The Antiquities Coalition, a US-based organization working to develop better laws and policies concerning international antiquities trafficking, boils the process of antiquities trafficking down to four steps.[5]

  1. A regional broker organizes a looting at a source location and delivers an artifact to a regional trade hub.
  2. Organized criminal groups purchase the objects from brokers and deliver them to a border city.
  3. A receiver takes the artifact to a major city.
  4. Finally, an “internationally connected dealer” who works in both the illicit and licit antique trades sells the artifact. This final step is essentially erased through online platforms, including Facebook, where items can be sold virtually with just the tap of a button. The direct transfer from thief to buyer can now happen online, evading law enforcement and art sale regulations.

Facebook: A Trafficking Enabler?

Since the unrest during the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East in 2011, Facebook has been used to facilitate illegal antiquities trafficking. Sellers are able to post descriptions of the objects in Facebook marketplace groups and respond to inquiries on separate messaging apps.[6] Prospective buyers may also post ideal types of artifacts for looters to find, and some posts even include instructions for aspiring looters. According to the ATHAR Project (explained below), over 95 Facebook groups have been flagged for illegal activity relating to antiquities trafficking, with over 1.8 million Facebook group members potentially involved in trafficking.[7]

Antiquities are not the only things being trafficking on Facebook, which hosts a plethora of illegal activity, ranging from human trafficking to illegal drug sales. In 2019, Facebook released statements claiming to be taking measures to combat illegal activity and weed out criminal groups with algorithms and a 30,000 person team. Yet, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims he and the site are immune from any legal repercussions because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which suggests tech companies should not be held liable for third party content, i.e. anything posted by Facebook users.[8]

Yet there is an even darker side of the illegal antiquities market. In many cases, the looters responsible for acquiring the relics and the people lining their pockets with profits are connected to terrorist groups. Extremist groups in Syria, some connected to ISIS and Al Qaeda, are benefiting from antiquities trafficking on Facebook.[9] Some estimates suggest ISIS has profited up to $100 million from antiquities smuggling.[10] ISIS began smuggling illegal artifacts in 2014 after losing access to lucrative oil fields, initially pillaging the ancient city of Palmyra, then selling the priceless goods to primarily Western buyers. ISIS allegedly approves individuals to sell the looted goods, then ships the goods through a series of countries to shroud their initial locations.

ATHAR Project

Numerous independent organizations are working to stop the practice of antiquities smuggling. The ATHAR Project is the one of the leading groups dedicated to exposing and ending the trade. ATHAR, short for Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research, is also the Arabic word for “antiquities.”[11] The ATHAR Project is led by a team of anthropologists and heritage experts who work to identify platforms and actors involved in illegal antiquities trafficking.

In a discussion with the Center for Art Law, Director Katie Paul explains the ATHAR Project “does not receive funding[;] we founded it after we first started examining antiquities trafficking on Facebook and realized the importance of documenting the activity and material we were seeing. We all have day jobs and do work tracking Facebook antiquities groups on nights, weekends, whenever we have free time.” The Project is affiliated with the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, a group dedicated to researching the connection between terrorism and Facebook black markets.[12]

In 2019, the ATHAR Project produced a report that revealed the startling depth of the Facebook antiquities trade and which identified 95 groups enabling trafficking and revealed the connection between traffickers and terrorist groups. Additionally, the Project found members of these illegal marketplaces included people with connections to Syrian-based militant groups like Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), Hurras Al-Din, the Zinki Brigade and other non-Syrian-based groups like Al-Qaeda or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliates. Furthermore, the majority of posts in a case study group came from conflict zones (36%) or locations bordering conflict zones (44%).

Screenshot of a Facebook antiquities smuggling group.
Photo courtesy of ATHAR Project

With almost 500 individual admins managing the total 1,947,195 members across all 95 Facebook groups[13], some shrouded behind avatars, it is difficult to imagine a solution without Facebook actively working to shut these groups down. The ATHAR Project’s report notes that Facebook’s community guidelines condemn the sale of black-market items, but do not specify policies about the trafficking of cultural property. In fact, Facebook’s algorithms make it even easier to find trafficking groups by recommending more trafficking groups once a user is admitted into one.[14] Paul says, “we have been in touch with Facebook about this and encouraged them to develop a policy. But we also encouraged them to preserve the existing content that is on Facebook, it is critical evidence of trafficked artifacts.” If Facebook just deletes the groups once illegal activity is discovered, essential evidence is wiped away.

The ATHAR Project, in conjunction with the Center on Illicit Network and Organized Crime, contributed to a recent filing in late May, 2020 against Facebook with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about the trade of illegal antiquities on Facebook.[15] The complaint highlights Facebook’s alleged misleading of investors and the public concerning their actions to counter crime on the site. Additionally, the press review explaining the complaint alleges Facebook makes intentional business decisions to propagate illegal activity instead of taking measures to reduce the black market’s reliance on Facebook. This most recent filing builds on two prior filings to the SEC from Facebook whistleblowers, but was filed intentionally right before the Facebook shareholders meeting to raise awareness about Facebook’s facilitation of the illegal antiquities trade.[16]

Screenshot of a Facebook antiquities trafficking group.
Photo courtesy of ATHAR Project

A Worldwide Response

The ATHAR Project is a leading actor in the fight to protect cultural property and end antiquities trafficking online. Groups like the The Antiquities Coalition or The Day After Heritage Protection Initiative have similar missions. In addition, individual countries and intergovernmental organizations have laws and regulations in place to help stop antiquities trafficking. For example, in 2015, the FBI released a statement warning dealers and collectors they could be found guilty of supporting terrorist causes if they purchase any illegal antiquities.[17] In 2016, the UN Security Council passed a resolution obligating member states to develop efforts to prevent terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria from benefiting from trade in oil, antiquities, and hostages.[18] Since then, individual countries have taken measures to comply with the resolution and prevent trafficking, but this does nothing to curb the existence of Facebook trafficking groups. Collaboration between nations to recover antiquities once they are bought is futile if the initial source of illegal activity, Facebook and other self-regulated online marketplaces, are not shut down.

Nevertheless, intergovernmental cooperation can make a difference in monitoring and eventually erasing the global illegal antiquities trade. In early May 2020, INTERPOL, Europol, and the World Customs Organization joined forces to combat widespread antiquities trafficking. The mission resulted in over 100 arrests of participating actors across 103 countries, and the seizure of over 19,000 artifacts. 28% of these artifacts were discovered online in virtual marketplaces.[19] Others were traced across continents and seized at airports during shipping. While this massive effort is a good sign for the ability of governments to work together, it also demonstrates that many artifacts are sold online and the illicit artifacts trade reaches every corner of the world. Yet, this effective mission reveals that, despite COVID-19 and a limitless web of shrouded participants, governments have the capacity to curb artifacts smuggling. If governments and social media sites start working together, it will become much more difficult to buy, sell, and traffic illegal antiquities online.

Looking To the Future

The ATHAR Project has reported an increase in traffic and sales in their flagged Facebook groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, partially because deserted cities allow looters access to usually inaccessible sites.[20] This uptick can also be attributed to preoccupied authorities, or even the warming weather. Katie Paul tells us, “as the world responds to this crisis and authorities in many countries are occupied with enforcing social distancing, there are more opportunities for people to engage in looting without being caught. And with more people spending time online, we see a lot of that activity manifesting on Facebook.” There are many reasons why antiquities trafficking on Facebook has increased over the past few months, including more people than ever connecting virtually over mobile phones and the internet.[21] With or without the current public health crisis, it is feasible to purchase looted antiquities with just a few keyboard clicks. The exploitation of cultural property will not end without an intentional plan of attack from social media sites and governments alike.

As we focus on regulating social media sites and ensuring the protection of cultural property, it is important to remember social media is not always the enemy. In the wake of the Hobby Lobby scandal, activists took to social media sites to encourage boycotts of the supplies store and increase awareness of such illegal activities. In response to the 2019 ATHAR Project report, Facebook deactivated dozens of groups and made statements committing to continued vigilance. Of course, until explicit community guidelines are established and Facebook executives take responsibility for the role they play in antiquities smuggling, it will be a game of whack-a-mole, with new groups popping up to replace any deactivated platforms.


Endnotes:

  1. Kat Moynihan, Bad Hobby: Collecting Unprovenanced Antiquities, Center for Art Law (Mar. 1, 2018), Here.
  2. Daniel Grant, Hobby Lobby Sues Christie’s for Selling It an Antiquity Authorities Say Was Looted, The Art Newspaper (May 19, 2020), Here.
  3. Marilyn Masler, What is Provenance and Why Does It Matter?, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (Feb. 7, 2012), Here.
  4. Ellen Belcher, Antiquities Trafficking, Art Crime, Looting and Cultural Heritage Destruction, Lloyd Sealy Libr. (Dec. 9, 2019), Here.
  5. Links between Terrorism, Crime and Trafficking in Cultural Property/Antiquities, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (Apr. 2020), Here.
  6. Karen Zraick, Now for Sale on Facebook: Looted Middle Eastern Antiquities, N.Y. Times (May 9, 2019), Here.
  7. Michael Press, How Social Media is Allowing for Illegal Antiquities Trafficking, Hyperallergic (Jul. 11, 2019), Here.
  8. Amr Al-Azm & Gretchen Peters, Time to Clean Up Facebook’s Dark Side, Morning Consult (Jun. 25, 2019), Here.
  9. Tim Fernolz, Terrorists Are Trafficking Looted Antiquities with Impunity on Facebook, Quartz (Jul. 3, 2019), Here.
  10. Daniel Kees, ISIS the Art Dealer, The Reg. Rev. (Apr. 13, 2020), Here.
  11. Amr Al-Azm & Katie A. Paul, About the ATHAR Project, ATHAR Project (Jun. 7, 2020), Here.
  12. Katie A. Paul, About Us, All. Counter Crime Online (Jun. 7, 2020), Here.
  13. Amr Al-Azm et al., Facebook’s Black Market in Antiquities, ATHAR Project (Jun. 2019), Here.
  14. Nadine Fahmy, Syria’s Cultural Heritage is a Casualty of War- Here Are the People Protecting It, Scene Arabia (Oct. 11, 2019), Here.
  15. Nitasha Tiku, Whistleblowers Say Facebook Has Not Warned Investors About Illegal Activity, in New SEC Complaint, The Washington Post (May 27, 2020), Here.
  16. Press Release, All. Counter Crime Online & Ctr. Illicit Networks and Transnat’l Organized Crime, Facebook Whistleblowers & Global Watchdog Organizations Challenge Company’s Misleading Statements and “Head in the Sand” Management Approach Ahead of Shareholder Meeting (May 27, 2020), Here.
  17. ISIL and Antiquities Trafficking FBI Warns Dealers, Collectors About Terrorist Loot, Fed. Bureau of Investigations News (Aug. 26, 2015), Here.
  18. Press Release, Security Council, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2199 (2015), Security Council Condemns Trade with Al-Qaida Associated Groups, Threatens Further Targeted Sanctions, U.N. Doc. SC/11775 (Feb. 12, 2015).
  19. 101 Arrested and 19,000 Stolen Artefacts Recovered in International Crackdown on Art Trafficking, Int’l Crim. Police Org. News and Events (May 6, 2020), Here.
  20. Carlie Porterfield, Smugglers Are Using Coronavirus Lockdowns To Loot Artifacts, Forbes (Apr. 30, 2020), Here.
  21. Katie A. Paul, Facebook Antiquities Looters Remain Active as Pandemic Rages On, All. To Counter Crime Online Medium Blog (Apr. 6, 2020), Here.

About the Author: Lucy Siegel is a Summer 2020 Intern at the Center for Art Law and a rising junior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She is studying art history and government with a concentration in international relations. Lucy can be reached at lsiegel@bowdoin.edu.

Acknowledgments: The Author thanks Katie Paul, Founder of the ATHAR Project, for speaking with the Center for Art Law about ATHAR’s role in fighting against antiquities trafficking.