Wildlife Trafficking Thrives on Facebook Despite Commitment to Combat Illegal Trade | The threatened species
Facebook remains a thriving market for online wildlife trafficking despite the tech giant’s pledge to help tackle the illegal trade, a new investigation has found.
Baby tigers, leopards, ocelots, African gray parrots and the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy marmoset, were among the endangered animals that researchers from global campaign group Avaaz found on the pages Facebook and public groups.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest illicit transnational activity in the world, just behind narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting. The multi-billion dollar activity is linked to a myriad of harms including cruelty to animals, endangering species and ecosystems and fueling the transmission of diseases from animals to humans such as coronavirus, Ebola, dengue fever, anthrax and bird flu.
In 2018, Facebook, which has more than 2.9 billion monthly users, co-founded the Coalition to End Online Wildlife Trafficking with experts like WWF, which has set itself the goal of reducing the illegal trade by 80% by 2020.
The company says it has made progress, but Wednesday’s report suggests Facebook remains a popular platform for animal traffickers.
In two days earlier this year, researchers found 129 pieces of potentially dangerous content ‘within a few clicks’ via the Facebook search bar, including posts selling or looking for cheetahs, monkeys, lion cubs and tusks. elephants – animals that are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
This included a Facebook page titled “Wildlife Trade, Pangolin Scale & Rhino Horn” calling out bidders on their animals by posting a photo of a pangolin in a cage.
“Smugglers aren’t shy about listing their goods in public groups, or including their phone numbers in their messages,” said Ruth Delbaere, legal campaign manager at Avaaz. “On Facebook, wildlife trafficking happens in broad daylight.”
Over the next few weeks, Facebook made 95 wildlife-focused recommendations to researchers through notifications and the “suggested groups” feature. Of these, 76% were posts seeking to buy or sell live animals, which was likely in violation of Facebook’s own policies.
The ease with which they were directed to these sites suggests Facebook’s algorithms do not align with its own policies or public commitment to curbing the online wildlife trade, the report concludes.
“Instead of using data to combat wildlife trafficking, their algorithms instead help criminals grow their business,” said Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online.
Four Avaaz researchers with no experience in wildlife trade investigations entered search terms such as “exotic animals”, “monkey for sale” and “pangolin scales” in English, Spanish and Portuguese. They looked for potentially dangerous posts, which they defined as content that merits further investigation to determine if it is illegal wildlife trafficking activity.
According to the report, Facebook appears to have removed 13% of suspicious wildlife trafficking posts they found before researchers flagged them. After reporting the posts, Facebook had only removed 43% of them a week after Avaaz alerted the company using its “report a post” tool.
“Not only does Facebook know that wildlife trafficking is booming on its platform, it has known it for years. Yet they continue to blatantly ignore the problem – or worse – enable it, even violating their own self-proclaimed stance against criminal activity and physical harm to animals. The findings of this investigation are duly noted,” said Raúl Grijalva, Democratic Congressman and Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
In 2018, Grijalva called for an investigation into the social network’s role in illegal wildlife trafficking.
In a statement, Facebook’s parent company Meta questioned the validity of the study’s methodology and sample size, and said the results did not reflect the work they had done. to combat wildlife trafficking.
A Meta spokesperson said, “We pioneered technology to help us find and remove this content; launched pop-up alerts to discourage people from participating in this trade. Between January and May 2021, in Indonesia and the Philippines alone, we removed more than 1,900 Facebook groups linked to wildlife trafficking. This is a contradictory space, however, and the people behind this horrible activity are persistent and constantly evolving their tactics in an attempt to evade these efforts.
The report calls on Facebook to strengthen and enforce policies aimed at ending wildlife trafficking, including by restricting certain search results and changing their algorithms, as well as cooperating with law enforcement and agencies authorities to combat online wildlife trafficking.