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Facebook Moves To Prevent Antiquities Looting. Critics Say It's Not Enough

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Is Facebook doing enough to stop the trade in looted antiquities? Facebook has announced new rules to crack down on that aggressive trade. As we're about to hear, some people use the social media site to sell ancient artifacts that they haven't even dug up yet. We should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. We cover it all the same. NPR's Jane Arraf has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is a video posted on Facebook of an elaborate Roman-era mosaic. The mythological figures and animals in colored glass and stone are still vivid 2,000 years later. You can hear the voice of the man describing it, but you can't see him. Then the video pans out to show the mosaic offered for sale is still in the ground, uncovered in a field of dirt and rocks.

AMR AL-AZM: I mean, they're showing to you in situ. You know, this is not from an archaeological excavation.

ARRAF: That's Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Azm, who's Syrian American, says the mosaic is in northwestern Syria, where there's been fighting and looting of antiquities for years.

AZM: Mosaics are a very common item that are often offered for sale on Facebook, either on individual pages or in these groups that are dedicated to either selling of looted antiquities or these groups that are dedicated to basically crowdsourcing information on how to loot, where to loot.

ARRAF: Azm is the co-director of the ATHAR Project. Athar in Arabic means antiquities, but the acronym stands for Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research. The organization has tracked at least 95 Facebook groups dealing in looted antiquities, many from conflict zones, including Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Facebook has prohibited the sale of things like drugs, guns and wildlife on its pages but, until recently, not illicit cultural property. Just in late June, the company announced that it would add historical artifacts to the ban.

Tess Davis - executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization aimed at combating cultural racketeering - calls it a good first step.

TESS DAVIS: Now is a particularly critical time because the COVID-19 crisis - it hasn't spared anything, including our cultural heritage. And above-board dealers, galleries, auction houses, even museums, they're all shuttered, but the international black market is staying wide open for business. And in particular, Facebook never shuts down.

ARRAF: Facebook, which also extended the ban to Instagram - which it owns - declined interviews on its new policy. Davis says stopping looting isn't just about antiquities.

DAVIS: The U.S. government, the United Nations, pretty much all of the world's international community is in agreement that looting and trafficking is helping to finance terrorism. It's also facilitating other crimes, like money laundering. And there's a documented connection to atrocity crimes, including genocide.

ARRAF: These groups say the problem is that Facebook relies on complaints from users to alert it to trafficking; it doesn't actively look for banned content. And if it does act on a complaint and takes down a post, Facebook doesn't preserve it. The company did say it would preserve the post if asked by law enforcement. Meanwhile, Amr al-Azm explained that knowledge is irretrievably lost when Facebook deletes the posts.

AZM: They're not part of documented collections that have been excavated properly by archaeologists, photographed and there's a record of them. The first time anyone has ever laid eyes on these items is when you see this picture on Facebook. And once that item is sold, it disappears because it's looted, and it may never be seen again.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ARRAF: This is a video posted on Facebook from upper Egypt of an elaborately painted sarcophagus for sale. Inside is a mummy, human remains thousands of years old. It's one of about a dozen posts that Azm and ATHAR co-director Katie Paul have reported to Facebook as violating Facebook policy since the ban came into force. Screenshots of the exchanges show that Facebook found that only one should be taken down.

KATIE PAUL: We focused on posts that explicitly said for sale in Arabic, were in groups that said antiquities for sale, said things like how much or price, to make very clear that these were explicit sales of these elicit items.

ARRAF: Some they've reported are both antiquities and human remains, which Facebook also says it bans. I open up on my computer one of the pages that Paul reported. It's been up for three years. There's shipping rates and prices and an amateur video showing what they call Tibetan antiques.

Not just any antiques, though - post after post of jewelry and objects made from human bones. Here's one with six views of a human skull, another one of jewelry - hashtag #skull, hashtag #bone, hashtag #humanbones, hashtag #humanbonesforsale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

PAUL: Unfortunately, the sales of human skulls and artifacts made of human skulls were left up and deemed to not violate Facebook's community standards.

ARRAF: The post was taken down only after NPR asked Facebook about it. ATHAR points out, for U.S.-based sellers with shops on Facebook, the company charges a commission. Facebook doesn't have an artificial intelligence program for antiquities, like it does with other banned items, and it doesn't hire experts who can easily recognize looted antiquities. Archaeologist Amr al-Azm points out that the company relies purely on user complaints.

AZM: Can you imagine how much more information is on the back end of all this that they have access to? This is a multibillion-dollar entity, and they won't invest in cleaning up their own site? They're going to rely on two people who have day jobs who spend their evenings scouring Facebook for evidence of crimes?

ARRAF: A Facebook spokesperson, Crystal Davis, acknowledged that the company needs to improve its system. ATHAR was one of the organizations Facebook consulted with in devising the ban on antiquities trade it announced in June. But conservation groups say that doesn't do much good unless it enforces its new rules.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "MARAYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.