Monday, 6 May 2019

'Antiquities looted in Syria and Iraq are sold on Facebook'

The BBC seems just now to have found out what we've known for some time, Facebook is being used by to buy and sell looted antiquities . It is hardly surprising, metal detectorists in the UK and US use it to swap information and offer objects to interested buyers as the social media platform increasingly fills a role played for them a decade ago by the forums and discussion lists. But Facebook is  now becoming a problem due to the realisation that its structure and nature have made it an important tool for those the businesses of political manipulation and social engineering. So any bad press is gladly received. And of course especially if it can be linked with the old US propaganda bugbear - ISIL (Steve Swann, 'Antiquities looted in Syria and Iraq are sold on Facebook', BBC 2 May 2019)
Prof Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist who has had to leave Syria and now works at Shawnee State University in Ohio [...] has spent two years trawling through hundreds of Facebook groups, many of which are private and often have thousands of members. "What we've seen is an explosion of sites and users on Facebook. It's transnational and Facebook is essentially allowing this to happen on its watch." People use the groups to exchange ideas on how to dig up sites. One writes about an excavation that is under way and warns of the dangers of tomb collapse and suffocation. There are also "loot-to-order" requests. In one case Facebook administrators ask for Islamic-era manuscripts to be made available in Turkey. "It has really opened our eyes to how accelerated these trafficking networks are," says fellow researcher Katie Paul. "Now if you dig something up in your back yard and you don't know a trafficker, you can hop on Facebook, share pictures of what you've found and connect with people who are willing to buy it." The actual transactions take place offline, out of public view. 
Because facebook is structured the way it is, there are difficulties doing anything about it 
In a statement, Facebook said co-ordinating illegal activity was not allowed on the site "and following the BBC's investigation we have removed 49 groups". But Amr al-Azm says many of the groups he is observing are still on Facebook.
What we obviously need to do is act on public opinion, attract social disapproval to the activity of purchasing portable antiquities, and dissuading people from collecting them at all. Sadly, that is a message that is a long way from getting through to the ivory tower archaeologists who want to be 'partners' with pliable goodie-finding artefact hunters, and even take part in the hobby in their own spare time.

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