Facebook has rules and terms of service regarding everything from spamming to how users identify themselves. Can the social media giant police what gets bought and sold on its site?
That question might grow in importance after a study revealed that there was a growing market in Libya for the illegal trade of weapons and guns via social media sites, including Facebook. After an 18-month study released today, the Small Arms Survey concluded that there is a wide range of weapons for sale on social media sites, including everything from anti-aircraft weapons to handguns. The Small Arms Survey is a nonprofit that studies small arms and armed violence.
The sales were usually done in closed Facebook groups, which can only be joined by invitation. The size of the groups selling weapons ranged from fewer than 400 members to almost 14,000. The survey used data collected by Armament Research Services on just over 1,300 weapon sales. The researchers said that number represents only a fraction of those sales taking place via social media.
Focus on Libya
Most of the weapons and arms trades take place within Libya, researchers said. Why Libya? Former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tightly controlled the sale of weapons when he was in power. But when his regime was overthrown in 2011, it created a huge black market.
In its report about the facts uncovered by the Small Arms Survey, the New York Times said that after it provided Facebook with seven examples of suspicious groups, the site shut down six of them.
Veryan Khan, editorial director and analyst for the Florida-based Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, told us she wasn’t impressed with the New York Times' discovery. "People have been selling arms on Facebook for years," she said. "I know for a fact that Facebook works hard to police those groups and shut them down, but they just create new accounts. Facebook’s main problem is having so many users."
Hard To Police
The sale of guns is in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, and the site removes any such postings as soon as it learns about them. Christine Chen, a Facebook spokeswoman, told the New York Times that the company depends on the nearly 1.6 billion people who visit the site every month to spot and report offenders.
Khan said Facebook is in a tough spot when it comes to shutting down weapon-exchange groups. Short of looking at each of the millions of groups on the site, the most it can do is search for photos of weapons -- and many of those might simply be included in photos put up by hunters or military personnel.
The Small Arms Survey concluded that the trade on social media began to flourish a few years ago, and that it’s growing steadily. As part of its research, the group searched for trading of small arms and light weapons across several other social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Instagram, and Telegram, but found the largest volume of sales on Facebook.
Image Credit: Artist’s concept (pictured above).