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Fri 26 June 2020:

Facebook has banned the sale of all ancient artefacts amid fears that items looted from Iraq and Syria are being traded on its platforms.

The changes were announced as part of a new set of Facebook Community Standards released by the California-based social media firm on June 23, 2020.

Users are now instructed under the ‘regulated goods’ section to not post ‘content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, donate, gift or solicit historical artefacts.’

Such artefacts could include, for example, ancient coins, scrolls, manuscripts, sculptures, mosaics and even mummified body parts.

‘Historical artefacts hold significant personal and cultural value for communities across the globe, but their sale often results in harmful behaviour,’ Facebook public policy manager Greg Mandel told the BBC.

‘That’s why we’ve long had rules preventing the sale of stolen artefacts.’

‘To keep these artefacts and our users safe, we’ve been working to expand our rules, and starting today we now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artefacts on Facebook and Instagram.’

According to the BBC, the social media firm is also developing artificial intelligence-powered systems which will automatically identify content that violates the new policy based on key words and image matching. 

An investigation last year by the BBC found evidence that Roman mosaics — photographed still in the ground in Syria — were being put up for sale on Facebook.

Other activities identified included requests for Islamic-era manuscripts to be made available for prospective buyers in Turkey, ‘loot-to-order’ requests and the exchange of ideas for how to dig up archaeological sites for profit.

Following the exposé, Facebook has reportedly removed 49 groups engaging in such practices — although academics have reported that the trade continues.

Archaeologist Amr al-Azm of Ohio’s Shawnee State University told the BBC that he welcomed the policy change — but would like to see Facebook go further.

‘Relying on user reports and artificial intelligence is simply not enough,’ he said.

Instead, Professor Al-Azm said, Facebook must invest in ‘teams of experts to identify and remove networks rather than playing whack-a-mole with individual posts.’ 

The archaeologist also said that Facebook — instead of permanently deleting content that violates its community standards after 90 days, unless instructed otherwise by law enforcement — should archiving images of these artefacts.

‘This evidence is vital for ensuring the repatriation of these objects if they appear on the market,’ he explained.

‘Illicit antiquities trade on Facebook appears to have the greatest reach in the Middle East and North Africa where we are currently monitoring over 120 Facebook groups developed solely for looting and trafficking activity,’ Professor Al-Azm added.

‘The largest group we identified had roughly 150,000 members this time last year – now it has more than 437,000.’

Some of this increase might be attributable to the economic pressures brought about by the coronavirus crisis, he conceded — but not all of it.

‘This is also a black market that funds criminal organisations, warlords, and radical extremists,’ Professor Al-Azm warned.

‘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.’

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