antiquities trafficking in the digital age

In World Politics Review, anthropologists Amr Al-Azm (@alazmamr) and Katie Paul (@AnthroPaulicy) have previewed their ongoing investigations into the Middle East’s other Facebook revolution: antiquities trafficking in the digital age, where looters, sellers and buyers are exploiting social networks such as Facebook and smartphone apps such as Telegram, Viber and WhatsApp, as well as online platforms such as eBay, Etsy and LiveAuctioneers.

As I have documented in preliminary assessments of online communities in Eastern Europe, South Asia, South-East Asia and East Asia, they have documented online social organisation and communal training of looters and traffickers in social networks across West Asia and North Africa and beyond. And they have done it in detail.

As in the other regions, some of these online communities are massive – and massively transnational. Al-Azm and Paul identified one trafficking group that had more than 16,000 members, who spanned Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Yemen and elsewhere, including market countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In my research, one online community had around 52,558 Facebook fans, who spanned South-East Asia. (Based on evidence that only 93.42 per cent of members of comparable online communities elsewhere are active offline, I reduce online membership by 6.58 per cent to estimate offline activity, so they would indicate at least 49,100 active metal-detectorists in the region.)

Al-Azm and Paul identified one closed looting group that had more than 51,230 members. Reducing this by 6.58 per cent to account for members who are inactive offline, this would suggest that there were around 47,859 active members. And this was one, novel, private group, in a territory with comparatively low levels of internet access.

In my research, another online community had around 80,452 forum members, or 75,158 active metal-detectorists, in the Russian Federation. These cases reaffirm the scale of the problems of antiquities looting and online trafficking within territories and around the world.

Corroborating the findings of my open-source analysis of looting-to-order/theft-to-order, which has repeatedly been dismissed as an insignificantly rare or even mythical phenomenon, they have identified ‘a system for submitting specific “loot-to-order” requests that are quickly fulfilled by other group members’.

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