Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Middle East’s Other Facebook Revolution: Antiquities Trafficking in the Digital Age

Through months of research, Katie Paul and Amr Al-Azam claim to have uncovered a previously unknown digital antiquities trafficking network spanning thousands of people. This important project has filled in a missing link in how we understand transnational trafficking today ('The Middle East’s Other Facebook Revolution: Antiquities Trafficking in the Digital Age', World Politics Review Aug 13th 2018).

The article describes the instability of the past eight years in the Middle East and asserts that the Islamic State gained control of some of the most archaeologically rich territories in the region and  exploited this to maximum effect. ISIL was able to commodify cultural heritage
as a resource that could simultaneously provide financial sustainability and propaganda value, compounding the psychological impact of its terrorism on civilian populations. Notably, it ushered in a new era of terrorism financing fueled by the black market trade in cultural property. [...] The existence of a robust, and largely unregulated, international market for art and antiquities dominated by Western nations provided ample opportunities to launder movable cultural artifacts into the global marketplace—opportunities that are not available when trafficking in oil, weapons or other traditional sources of terrorist financing.  
Once again, we see an unhealthy focus on one of the groups in the Middle East as if it were the only one that mattered. This blog (and Sam Hardy's blog too) has shown time and time again the problems of the simplistic 'blame-it-on-ISIL' model, and it is disappointing to see US academics still coming out with the same old stuff regardless. Search the article for any evidence backing up this claim and it comes down to a single decontextualised object.

The authors discuss the use of social media platforms for this kind of trafficking. Facebook is the most high-profile of the social media platforms that have been used as vehicles for the sale of illicit artifacts; others include WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber. They seem unaware that British metal detectorists (and not a few in other countries) were using Facebook many years ago for networking and coordinating their site-emptying activities. This is nothing new, but the extent to which what they describe happening is now occurring is indeed worrying.
Antiquities traffickers use these platforms to evade the authorities and circumvent regulations imposed by online auction and e-commerce sites like eBay, LiveAuctioneers and Etsy (though these sites are frequently used as well). The current “Community Standards” on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp fall short of providing the means to report and remove pages and groups that engage in the trafficking of cultural property. While Facebook and other technology giants have had success in targeting the movement of drugs and weapons on their platforms, they have struggled to rein in antiquities traffickers, who have devised their own methods of communication that have helped them skirt rules against such transactions, as well as the artificial intelligence designed to enforce them.
They say they have been studying this 'terrorism financing fueled by the black market trade in cultural property' for the past 10 months.  The complete study will be published in a forthcoming paper.
 The data analyzed so far has revealed a sophisticated network of looters and traffickers who have developed new tools and methods to facilitate their illicit transactions. These include visuals such as maps and diagrams to aid in looting efforts and a system for submitting specific “loot-to-order” requests that are quickly fulfilled by other group members. More broadly, it is becoming clear that social media has brought the world of transnational trafficking to the fingertips of a large number of internet users throughout the region, while streamlining the process of executing individual transactions.
Many of the examples discussing alleged looting-dedicated resources are of Egypt, not Islamic State' territory. It is unclear how these relate to 'terrorism' and how many are merely a contemporary expansion of the traditional 'buried treasure' motifs of modern folk tales in these regions.
Facebook groups dedicated to trafficking, meanwhile, are more like online marketplaces, primarily used for arranging the movement of specific pieces and establishing connections between middlemen and buyers. These groups generally have smaller memberships, with a greater rate of repeat-engagement by members. One of the Facebook pages we examined was operational from 2013 until this past March, when Facebook removed it for undisclosed reasons. Though it had a total membership of just over 16,000, significantly lower than some of the looting groups we examined, some 2,020 members were seen actively engaging and posting on the page with regard to the purchase, sale or theft of artifacts. We have also identified multiple users who are active on several trafficking pages. Some of them offer the same artifacts on more than one page. Of the 2,020 members we studied, 1,552 provided information identifying their current locations. The traffickers come from places like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Turkey and Iran, as well as destinations outside the Middle East. Dozens of users in the United States, Germany, England, France, Belgium and elsewhere were engaged in the sale and purchase of artifacts through the page. [...] What was once an underground industry, accessible only to seasoned traffickers, has been democratized. The proliferation of Facebook and other social media platforms has created a different kind of revolution in the Middle East, one that enables any cultural property thief to operate as a transnational trafficker with contacts and buyers far and wide. While these new digital communities may be difficult to track, by infiltrating them we can better understand how they operate. 
Facebook does not currently enforce an explicit ban on transactions involving illicit cultural property.

Finally, the authors conclude:
 Using Facebook as a vehicle for “stealth” ethnography allows us to see how these groups’ tactics continue to evolve, potentially allowing for the adaptation of new methods to combat the plundering of the Middle East’s cultural riches. But our findings also underscore the fact that we are facing an uphill battle against antiquities trafficking. As criminals continue to adapt, we must adapt with them to have any hope of saving our past.  
I see one problem with this, that archaeologists cannot seem to agree among themselves that anything needs to be done at all, so for example the Helsinki Gang (Suzie Thomas,  Pieterjan Deckers, Andres Dobat, Stijn Heeren Natasha Ferguson, Michael Lewis) recently declared that collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record is not actually all that damaging.  And indeed if you focus on (and publish in) magazines like "the Searcher", I guess you may be excused for not knowing what the rest of us are concerned with. But what kind of 'academic enquiry;' is that?

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