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Facebook bans sale of historical artefacts in anti-looting crackdown

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In this 2015 file picture, an 8th century Assyrian statue recovered in Mosul, Iraq, after being looted during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In this 2015 file picture, an 8th century Assyrian statue recovered in Mosul, Iraq, after being looted during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.   -   Copyright  Khalid Mohammed/AP
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Facebook will ban the sale of historical artefacts in an attempt to prevent priceless items looted or stolen from being sold online.

The social media giant said that an outright ban on the sale of artefacts on its site was the only way to ensure that statues, relics and other historical treasures that had been taken from war zones like Syria and Iraq in recent years cannot be purchased either intentionally or unintentionally.

“Historical artefacts hold significant personal and cultural value for communities across the globe, but their sale often results in harmful behaviour," Greg Mandel, public policy manager at Facebook, said in a statement to Euronews.

"That’s why we’ve long had rules preventing the sale of stolen artefacts. To keep these artefacts and our users safe, we’ve been working to expand our rules, and starting today, we now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artefacts on Facebook and Instagram.”

The change in policy follows significant pressure from groups including the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project (ATHAR), highlighted by Euronews in May 2019.

Dr Amr Al-Azm, its co-founder along with his colleague Katie Paul, spent years trawling social media posts advertising antiquities for sale from war zones such as Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria.

The posts included everything from gold and silver coins to huge mosaics, many of them looted from museums and historical sites by militant groups including the so-called Islamic State, which captured swathes of Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2019, when its last stronghold in Syria was retaken.

'Unprecedented level'

Although the theft and trafficking of historical artefacts has a long history in the Middle East - and elsewhere in the world, including Africa and south-east Asia - it was IS that took looting to an "unprecedented level" during its bloody reign of terror in northern Iraq and Syria.

Speaking to Euronews last year, Al-Azm said a wide range of people sold artefacts, from professional looters to desperate people trying to make ends meet, but he said that social media had been key to fuelling the trade.

"They've allowed this problem to become so big now it's a game-changer when they could've done something about it when it first started," he said.

Commenting on the policy change on June 23, Al-Azm said that it was positive that the firm recognised that illegal and harmful activities were happening on the platform, but questioned whether they were serious about stamping out illegal sales of artefacts.

Facebook will rely on users reporting the sales, rather than directly moderating posts, he said.

"Currently the sale of guns and endangered wildlife species are banned by the community standards and are subject to reporting, yet there is still a thriving trade in them on Facebook groups and pages," he told Euronews.

He added that the COVID-19 pandemic had led to an increase in the sale of looted artefacts due to the economic downturn, job losses and a preoccupation with the crisis by global police forces. That, he said, only emphasises the need for an active rather than passive enforcement strategy.

"Facebook is the largest social media company in the world and it needs to invest in teams of experts to identify and remove networks rather than playing whack-a-mole with individual posts and accounts," he said. "Otherwise nothing will change."