On World Rhino Day, we all come together to make a stand against rhino poaching.
Currently, there are as few as 20,000 white rhinos left in the world. Meanwhile, black rhinos have dropped below 5,000. Poached for their horns, which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine, a gram of its powder sells for more than a gram of cocaine, even though there’s no evidence of its medicinal value. At these rates, the rhino will be extinct within a decade.
There are a lot of conservationists and park rangers doing incredible work to stop poaching, but is it enough? While frontline work is vitally important, we must complement what they are doing by targeting the very systems that sell rhino horn to consumers. Our approach is to close down the organized criminal networks that market illegal wildlife products.
The Largest Retail Market for Rhino Horn
When we think of organized crime, we picture hackers and back alleyways. The reality is far more simple. The largest retail markets for endangered wildlife goods are on closed and secret groups on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and WeChat.
As a team of researchers, we have two members working directly on the illegal rhino horn trade.
Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism is a data-driven journalism unit that sources and analyzes data to track and expose eco-crimes across the world. They use tools such as the PoachTracker, a database of rhino deaths and poaching arrests, and Rhino Court Cases, which tracks the development of rhino court cases in South Africa – home to about 80% of the world’s remaining rhinos.
In recent investigations into wildlife cryptotrafficking, Oxpeckers journalists found that cyberspace is an increasingly popular marketplace because it allows for both sellers and buyers to remain anonymous, and to find things that might otherwise be difficult to find (often because they are critically endangered), all with just a few clicks.
The steps of how these transactions take place are explained in a simple interactive graphic in their Online Illegal Wildlife Trade investigation into how these transactions facilitate illicit financial flows.
Another member, CINTOC, is an intelligence organization fighting wildlife crime. In an investigation conducted from 2016-2018, they researched how these criminal networks work on Facebook. Working with a team of undercovers, CINTOC penetrated a web of Facebook rhino horn traffickers. Starting by friending dealers, eventually these dealers invited them to secret and/or closed Facebook, WhatsApp or WeChat Groups where rhino horns were marketed and sold. Soon, friends of those dealers made contact with the undercovers and CINTOC was able to identify a vast network of wildlife traffickers and consumers.
Facebook enables buyers and sellers to work with impunity and anonymity. In many cases, a seller and buyer never meet in person. Western Union is a popular choice of payment because you can make and collect payment in cash, without involving bank accounts. Typically a middleman/woman, with a fake ID, collects the payment. Then, the product is delivered in person (again, typically a middleman), via postal services, or even on ships or airplanes.
Get Organized Crime Off Facebook
It’s important to realize that Facebook is not just passively allowing organized crime to happen on its platform; it’s actively profiting from it. Advertising revenue from the billions of users who log onto Facebook make up 89% of the firm’s revenue. So when there are tens of thousands of people logging on to buy illegal rhino horn, Facebook is earning money. And by profiting from this criminal activity, Facebook is breaking the law.
Facebook hides behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, an outdated piece of Internet legislation which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. In layman’s terms, it means that Facebook is not liable for anything published by a participant on its site because its acts as an internet service provider. However, this law was enacted in 1996, several years before even MySpace was founded. Since then, social media has exploded in ways we never imagined, becoming a global empire that has revolutionized how we communicate, buy and sell, play games and find jobs.
At Countering Crime, we advocate handing those posts and profiles over to law enforcement to be treated as evidence. Cybercrime investigations such as wildlife trafficking need both public and private partnerships, as well as getting the right experts on board, to prevent these types of crimes altogether. If ads are deleted, then they are simply covering up crimes.
In addition, Facebook is revolutionary when it comes to gathering data through its superb algorithm system. These algorithms could be utilized to track visa blacklists and bitcoin transactions, which would help identify wildlife trafficking.
When fighting a worldwide issue, such as wildlife trafficking, you have to look at the entire supply chain in order to prevent the crime. Facebook is the middleman, the means through which organized criminals market their illegal products. As a middleman that is being exploited by criminal organizations, Facebook does have an obligation to prevent wildlife trafficking, contrary to what it says in the CDA Section 230.
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