The fuzzy ideal of world peace and the reality of business principles often find themselves at odds with each other, and this might be most clearly seen in the realm of the global trade for weapons. Statistics reported in 2012 by the public small firearms information clearinghouse Small Arms Survey indicated that the global market for authorized transfers of small arms, light weapons, accessories and ammunition reached $8.5 billion in that year. Of course, these are just the authorized transfers. Small Arms Survey has also reported on illicit online weapon markets in regions like Libya, where the government is destabilized and online small arms sales to non-state armed groups have picked up since mid-to-late 2013. The report might be about small weapons, but the types of weapons being traded include heavy machine guns, shoulder-fired rocket launchers and anti-tank guided weapons. So we’re definitely talking about small arms that pack way more of a wallop than a six shooter.
The world’s largest exporter of weapons is the United States and our country accounted for almost one-third of the global share of major weapons sales between 2010 and 2014. Democratic uprisings across the Middle East during 2011, also known as the Arab Spring, has heightened the instability of areas throughout the Middle East and North Africa, increasing concerns for weapons misuse even as gun producers from Western and Gulf Cooperation Council states haven’t changed their export policies. Although the United Nations operates a global disarmament initiative known as the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, only a handful of the countries in that region are subject to UN arms trade sanctions.
America is a leading exporter of not only weapons but also social media services and at least one major provider is finding itself caught in the crosshairs, so to speak. Menlo Park, CA-based Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) has been singled out in the past for its role in serving as a platform where individuals can conduct illicit sales of firearms. In February of 2014, Facebook was handling calls from gun control advocacy groups who wanted further crackdowns on gun sales on Facebook. Facebook responded that March by unveiling a public service campaign encouraging private gun sellers to perform background checks and inform them of pertinent local and state laws.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the company have tried to stay out in front of the issue that its social media platform could be used as a place for terrorists and non-state armed militias to conduct illicit trade. In January 2016, the company announced that private gun sales would be banned on both the flagship social network as well as Instagram, although the ban did not apply to licensed gun dealers conducting sales off of Facebook.
It doesn’t appear that those private gun sale bans have had much in the way of any actual effect, unfortunately. In March 2016, Forbes reported that it had been tracking gun sales on private Facebook sites for weeks in some pretty blatant violations of Facebook’s supposed ban on private sales. A recent article in The New York Times reports on a study performed by arms and munitions research firm Armament Research Services shows 97 attempts at unregulated weapons transfers have been attempted by Libyan-based Facebook groups since September 2014. Facebook responded by shutting down six of seven identified groups exhibiting suspicious behaviors related to weapons trafficking; the seventh group reportedly forbade sales of weapons although it allowed discussions of them.
Militia groups are able to leverage Facebook’s social media platform for weapons sales by creating closed or secret groups, some of which had nearly 14,000 members. Sales are reportedly carried out through telephones or private messages and most sellers are in their 20s or 30s. As the Forbes article cited above notes, even on American soil it’s pretty clear that private gun sales are happening through private messages, like Facebook’s own Messenger service, provided that group administrators give lip service to the terms of Facebook’s gun sale ban by prohibiting public advertisements.
Weapons trafficking is not the only illicit activity carried out by non-state armed groups on Facebook and other social media platforms. Reports in April 2016 from Business Insider discuss how Mexican drug cartels are using social media networks in order to improve their kidnapping and extortion business. Gangs send messages to individuals and are able to glean information about family and other details that have been used by some to make threats more targeted, allowing them to increase the amount of money they’re able to extort. Although both kidnappings and extortion have dropped from a peak in 2013, data published by Business Insider shows how extortion rose slightly and kidnappings actually declined between 2000 and 2005, but both have seen dramatic increases since 2007; it’s interesting to note that this increase starts in the months after Facebook ramped up public access to its social media networks in September 2006.
Even as cartels leverage social media for malevolent purposes, some organizations around the world are doing what they can to collect information that could be used to put a stop to those activities some day. One such group is the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian cyber research think tank that monitors social media activity throughout Central America, a region of the globe where gang violence is much more common. SecDev’s work helps to map the relationships between cartels or gangs operating in the region, pulling data from Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and more. SecDev has also collaborated with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide advice on the development of gang violence reduction programs.
In America, local law enforcement agencies have tried to leverage social media themselves in the battle to keep law-abiding citizens safe. A 2013 survey of 500 law enforcement agencies in 48 states, conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), found that 95.9 percent of agencies surveyed social media, the most popular choice being Facebook. 86.1 percent of the time, those surveys were being conducted to assist in criminal investigations. In July 2014, the San Antonio Police Department reported that it was seeing more illegal activities being reported by witnesses on social media while noting that it was no true substitute for actually calling the authorities. Last July, a California appellate court upheld a conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm by a minor; the main evidence in that case were photos collected by a San Francisco Police Department officer who has been patrolling Instagram for that department over the course of a few years.