Facebook remains a thriving marketplace for online wildlife trade, despite the tech giant’s promise to help fight the illegal trade, according to a new study.
Tiger cubs, leopards, ocelots, African gray parrots and the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy marmoset, were among the endangered animals researchers from the global campaign group Avaaz found on Facebook pages and public groups.
Illegal wildlife trade is the the fourth largest illegal transnational activity in the world, closely behind narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting. The multi-billion dollar business has been linked to a myriad of damages, including animal cruelty, endangering species and ecosystems, and fueling the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, such as coronavirus, Ebola, dengue, anthrax and bird flu.
In 2018, Facebook, with more than 2.9 billion monthly users, co-founded the Coalition to End wild animals Human trafficking online with experts such as WWF, which set a goal of reducing illicit trafficking by 80% by 2020.
The company says it has made progress, but Wednesday’s report suggests that Facebook remains a popular platform for pet traders.
In two days earlier this year, researchers found 129 pieces of potentially harmful content “in a matter of clicks” through Facebook’s search bar, including posts selling or seeking for cheetahs, monkeys, lion cubs and elephant tusks — animals listed in the Convention. on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
This included a Facebook page called “Wildlife Trade, Pangolin Scale & Rhino Horn” calling for bidders for their animals by posting a photo of a pangolin in a cage.
“Traffickers are not afraid to list their goods for sale in public groups or include their phone numbers in their messages,” said Ruth Delbaere, senior legal campaigner at Avaaz. “On Facebook, wildlife trade takes place in broad daylight.”
In the weeks that followed, Facebook made 95 animal-centric recommendations to the researchers through notifications and the “suggested groups” feature. Of these, 76% were posts seeking to buy or sell live animals, which likely violated Facebook’s own policies.
The ease with which they were directed to these sites suggests that Facebook’s algorithms are inconsistent with its own policies or public commitment to curb online wildlife trade, the report concludes.
“Instead of using the data to fight wildlife trafficking, their algorithms help criminals grow their businesses,” said Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online.
Four Avaaz researchers with no background in wildlife trade research entered search terms such as “exotic pets,” “monkey for sale,” and “pangolin scales” in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. They looked for potentially harmful messages, which they defined as content that warrants further investigation to determine whether the wildlife trade is illegal.
According to the report, Facebook appeared to be removing 13% of suspicious wildlife trade posts it found before the researchers reported them. After the posts were reported, Facebook had removed just 43% a week after Avaaz alerted the company using its “report post” tool.
“Facebook doesn’t just know that the wildlife trade is thriving on their platform, they’ve known it for years. Yet they continue to blatantly ignore — or worse — make it possible, even violating their own self-proclaimed stance against criminal activity and physical harm to animals. The findings of this investigation are noted,” said Raúl Grijalva, Democratic congressman and chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
In 2018, Grijalva called for an investigation into the role of the social network in the illegal wildlife trade.
In a statement, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, questioned the validity of the study’s methodology and sample size, saying the results did not match the work they’d done to combat wildlife trafficking.
A Meta spokesperson said: “We have pioneered technology to help us find and remove this content; launched pop-up alerts to discourage people from participating in this trade. In Indonesia and the Philippines alone, we deleted more than 1,900 Facebook groups related to wildlife trade between January and May 2021. However, this is a hostile space and the people behind this horrible activity are persistent and constantly developing their tactics to try and evade these efforts.
The report calls on Facebook to strengthen and enforce policies to end the wildlife trade, including restricting certain search results and altering their algorithms, as well as working with law enforcement and government agencies to prevent the online wildlife trade.