Researchers say Facebook plans to delete evidence of war crimes


An art trafficker in Darnah, Libya, posted a series of unusual ads on October 24th, 2020. For sale: a Greco-Roman statue, its marble bust covered in a toga. If it looked like it belonged in a museum, that’s because it did. It said that the seller posted photos of the piece in private Facebook groups dedicated to trafficking antiques. On Facebook, the black market for looted goods is flourishing. In June, the company banned the sale of historical artifacts. And many of the posts are in Arabic, and Facebook lacks the expertise to enforce its new policy properly.

Experts say the company deletes them, expunging crucial documentation for researchers studying stolen art when Facebook able to identify groups that flout its guidelines. Katie Paul, co-director of the Athar Project, said, This is critical evidence for repatriation efforts and war crimes. She also said Facebook had created a problem. And rather than turning that into something they could contribute to, they are making it worse.”

What else did he say?

Above all, it said that the implications go far beyond art theft. Looted antiques have been a significant funding source for terrorist organizations like ISIS since 2014. The Middle East is rich with cultural artifacts. And the market for stolen goods isn’t as regulated as drug trafficking and arms sales. The seller of the Greco-Roman statue posted the ad in Facebook groups. It had between 5,000 to 18,000 members.

What else do you need to know?

These traffickers not only live to stream their looting activities but also give each other tips on digging and finding buyers for pieces that are still in the ground. Currently, Athar monitoring 130 groups on Facebook, which dedicated to trafficking antiques. A group in Syria featuring 340,000 members has posts showing looters uncovering a mosaic.

Athar documented in the comments that one user saying the mosaic shouldn’t be removed, while another responded with laughing emojis saying: “Die of hunger for the history of the country.” The problem is especially grave in active conflict zones where trafficking antiquities a war crime. Samuel Hardy, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome who specializes in cultural heritage and conflict, said It’s infuriating and problematic.

He also said, When Facebook pulls evidence that people are self-publishing, we lose not only the ability to track the cultural property and return it to the victimized community. But also any hope of identifying and stopping the criminals who are earning money from it.

Who is suffering besides Facebook?

Experts say that Facebook isn’t the only platform struggling with how to police content while preserving evidence for research groups, including Athar. Additionally, YouTube has also received criticism for removing extremist content that experts are trying to learn. Even though both the companies will sometimes preserve evidence at the request of law enforcement. This policy doesn’t help most academic researchers.

Jeff Deutch, a researcher at the Syrian Archive, told Time, in relation to videos documenting human rights violations, that “We’re not saying that all this content has to remain public forever. But it essential that this content archived. So it’s accessible to researchers, to human rights groups, to academics, to lawyers, for use in some legal accountability.

Will Facebook suffer?

The issue has existed for years on Facebook. Those trying to study the company’s ad targeting tools have also frustrated by its unwillingness to share data with academics. Facebook’s pivot to privacy has had unintentional benefits since criminals use secret groups. They also use encrypted messages to conduct illicit activity in the case of art traffickers. 

 Athar wrote in a report that this, in turn, has made Facebook the wild west of social media, providing opportunities for violent extremist organizations.  Criminal groups to operate in plain sight with little recourse.

Reasons why social media platforms are deleting all pieces of evidence of war crimes:

Math problems:

One of the most common reasons why such videos deleted is that social media platforms all utilize artificial intelligence-based algorithms. To detect and remove content that suspected of violating the user terms of the agreement.

Facebook has upped its game to remove content automatically, and rival services. They have working hard to delete such content almost as quickly as it is posted.

Social reactions:

In the majority of the cases, the content does violate Facebook terms, including its community standards, even though it might serve a severe and essential purpose.

Social news:

No doubt, social media has come across such problems, but Facebook has taken a different route altogether by rolling out their new ‘News Tab. They hope to help with many issues, this being one. If Facebook’s News Tab is successful, YouTube could follow suit and treat such videos as actual “news” instead of user-generated content.

Can people trust it?

There is a problem of whether such content can trusted, especially in the era of so-called “deep fake” videos. Which use computer technology to manipulate and mislead. Above all, there are several cases throughout the history of governments doctoring photos as part of a misinformation or propaganda campaign.

This is a tricky situation indeed, and social media platforms should held to the same standards as broadcast media. Thus, it validates the authenticity of the video which shared on platforms, including Facebook.

Wrap up:

Human Rights Watch says it’s in dialogue with social media companies about creating such an archive. In war zones often Social media has been the only means of communication in war zones. Notably during the Arab Spring uprisings, some areas like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and some remote parts of Syria.

Thus, social media also said to a way for information to passed on so that news organizations can then vet it. In simple terms, social media platforms should not be in the business of breaking the news via user contributions.