Facebook announced yesterday that it will ban the sale of historic artefacts on its website amid a surge in posts of looted antiquities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision to remove any content "that attempts to buy, sell or trade in historical artifacts" comes as experts and activists who monitor the illicit trade in trafficked antiquities, claimed to have identified at least 200 Facebook groups using the site to find black market buyers and offer tutorials on how to dig up and deliver the most sought-after items, reports the New York Times.
Many of the items originate in the Middle East and have been looted during conflicts. Last year a BBC investigation found that such items were still being smuggled from Iraq and Syria into Turkey in spite of clampdowns and the fall of the Daesh "caliphate".
"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," said Professor Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University in Ohio. "The largest group we identified had roughly 150,000 members this time last year – now it has more than 437,000."
Although he welcomed the move by Facebook, relying on user reports and Artificial Intelligence is not enough, he argues. He is critical of Facebook's policy of deleting posts that violate community standards and instead believes it should keep a digital archive of images which can be vital in ensuring the reparation of the items should they appear on the black market.
Facebook public policy manager Greg Mandel told the BBC: "Historical artefacts hold significant personal and cultural value for communities across the globe, but their sale often results in harmful behaviour.
It is believed that the illicit trade in stolen artefacts – one of the most profitable illegal industries after drugs and arms dealing worth billions of dollars a year has thrived during the coronavirus pandemic in addition to rising unemployment rates and empty archaeological sites. Spring is the prime season in the Middle East and North Africa to dig up the sites.