Ali Ahamed's black satchel was overflowing with turtles, their tiny heads poking out. Just a few feet away, on the hotel room floor, roughly 20 larger turtles with dark brown shells were removed from black suitcases and flipped onto their backs to keep them from crawling under the couch.
Ahamed smiled as he showed off the loot to a man in shorts and a gray T-shirt, according to a video of the encounter-posted online. The hotel-room exchange was a chance to cash in, a single red-crowned roofed turtle can fetch more than $1,500 on the black market. For the buyer, an undercover investigator working with local authorities and the Wildlife Justice Commission, it was an opportunity to rescue dozens of freshwater turtles and put a key wildlife broker behind bars. After inspecting the goods, the buyer left the room and returned with police, who burst in and arrested Ahamed on the spot.
Social networks and online marketplaces have long been hubs of illegal-activity, including exotic animal trafficking. Smugglers use the platforms as digital billboards, often sharing photos and videos of their merchandise for users around the world to see. On Facebook and Instagram, it's common for traffickers to post their WhatsApp or WeChat numbers alongside their goods, a signal to prospective buyers to connect in a more private forum. From orangutans and cheetah cubs to opioids and ancient Middle Eastern antiquities, if something can be sold illegally, researchers say, it's likely being sold somewhere on Facebook or Instagram.
Now, as Facebook embarks on a shift to more personal communications and private-group activity, it's poised to get worse. That's giving advocates a sense of urgency about getting the social network to crack down on the black-market trade before it becomes even tougher to track."We're in the middle of a big storm about what social media should be responsible for on their platforms," said Tim Mackey, a professor at the school of health sciences at the University of California, San Diego.
"Animals are dying in the field, and their platforms are being used to facilitate that trafficking."
"It looks like this is not a space that Facebook is policing very much," he said.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare recently looked at social media sites like Facebook and Instagram as part of a separate wide-ranging report on animal trafficking published in 2018. Over a six-week period covering posts from just four countries, IFAW found 275 listings selling endangered or threatened wildlife or wildlife parts on the two services, a small number, but one that didn't include any posts that may have been part of private Facebook groups. "It should also be noted that had 'closed' groups on Facebook been included in this research, levels of trade discovered on social media could have been significantly higher," according to the report.
Dan Stiles, an ACCO member and independent researcher in Kenya, has studied the illegal wildlife trade since 1999 with a focus on great apes. He's penned reports on the illegal ape trade for numerous wildlife organizations, as well as the United Nations. In late 2016, he even orchestrated a sting operation carried out on Facebook and WhatsApp to help nab a trafficker selling two baby orangutans in Bangkok.
"They're not actually looking for it themselves," Stiles said, "because they would have closed down a hell of a lot more [accounts] by now if they were."
The company does not, however, actively search for posts that promote the sale of animals on Facebook or Instagram. It uses machine learning to detect posts that include animal cruelty or graphic images, which can lead to the removal of some trafficking posts, Slackman said. But the majority of posts Facebook takes down have been flagged by users, researchers or advocacy organizations.
"The hope eventually is that we will have strong information on [animal trafficking] as well as other regulated goods sales," Slackman said.
"They do have a really strong wildlife [trafficking] policy in place," she said of Facebook. Other online marketplaces are particularly popular in Europe, she says, and popular internet services in China are also an issue.
That may be one of Facebook's biggest issues moving forward. As the company pivots away from public sharing and moves toward encryption, even Facebook won't have access to private communications sent through its network. It already owns one encrypted messaging service in WhatsApp, and Messenger and Instagram will also encrypt all messages sometime soon. The three services have more than a billion users each. On a recent conference call with reporters, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg conceded that Facebook's plans for privacy will have trade-offs. Facebook can only fight what it can see.
Gretchen Peters, a security expert and former journalist who founded the ACCO, hopes that Facebook will ultimately be regulated and punished for all kinds of illegal transactions on its network. She's broaching the subject with U.S. lawmakers and says she's had meetings with staffers for numerous congressional committees, including the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. Peters believes Facebook is profiting off this illegal activity: The company makes money when people spend time using the service, she says, even if that time is spent trafficking illegal goods.