Facebook remains a thriving marketplace for online wildlife trafficking despite the tech giant’s pledge to help combat the illegal trade, according to a new investigation.
Tiger cubs, leopards, ocelots, African grey parrots and the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy marmoset, were among the endangered animals that researchers from the global campaign group Avaaz found on Facebook pages and public groups.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is the world’s fourth largest illicit transnational activity, falling closely behind narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeits. The multibillion-dollar business is linked to a myriad of harms including animal cruelty, endangering species and ecosystems, and fueling the transmission of disease from animals to humans such as coronavirus, Ebola, dengue, anthrax and bird flu.
In 2018 Facebook, which has more than 2.9 billion monthly users, co-founded the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online with experts like WWF, which set out to cut 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 harmful content “in a matter of clicks” through the Facebook search bar including posts selling or seeking cheetahs, monkeys, lion cubs and elephant tusks – animals which are 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 on their animals by posting a photo of a pangolin in a cage.
“Traffickers do not shy away from listing their goods for sale in public groups, nor from including their phone numbers in their posts,” said Ruth Delbaere, senior legal campaigner at Avaaz. “On Facebook wildlife trafficking takes place in broad daylight.”
In the following weeks, Facebook made 95 wildlife-focused recommendations to the researchers through notifications and the “suggested groups” feature. Of these, 76% were posts seeking to buy or sell live animals, which were probably 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 curb the online wildlife trade, the report concludes.
“Instead of using the data to help 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 background in investigating the wildlife trade, entered search terms such as “exotic pets”, “monkey for sale” and “pangolin scales” in English, Spanish and Portuguese. They looked for potentially harmful posts, which they defined as content that warrants further investigation to determine whether it constitutes illegal wildlife trafficking activity.
According to the report, Facebook appeared to remove 13% of the suspicious wildlife trafficking posts they found before the researchers reported them. After the posts were reported, Facebook had removed only 43% a week after Avaaz alerted the company using its “report post” tool.
“Not only does Facebook know that wildlife trafficking is thriving on their platform – they have known about it for years. Yet, they continue to blatantly ignore the problem – or worse – enable it, violating even their own self-professed stand against criminal activity and physical harm to animals. The findings of this investigation are duly noted,” said Raúl Grijalva, Democratic congressman and chair of the House committee on natural resources.
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’ve 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 over 1,900 Facebook Groups linked to wildlife trafficking as a result. This is an adversarial space though, and the people behind this awful activity are persistent and constantly evolving their tactics to try and evade these efforts.”
The report calls on Facebook to strengthen and enforce policies to end wildlife trafficking including restricting certain search results and changing their algorithms, as well as cooperating with law enforcement and government agencies to combat online wildlife trafficking.
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