Holding Social Media Companies Accountable for Criminal Activity on their Websites

National Whistleblower Center Calls Upon SEC and Congress to Act
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Summary of the Campaign

In 2016, NWC launched its campaign to hold social media companies accountable for unchecked criminal activity on their websites. In this campaign, NWC has assisted several whistleblowers with filing petitions before the Securities and Exchange Commission and advocated in Congress regarding the need for greater attention to the illegality highlighted in the whistleblower petitions.

Terror and Hate Petition

NWC is supporting a whistleblower in bringing forward evidence that Facebook is hosting and facilitating terror and hate content on its website and that the company’s management has been deceiving shareholders and the public about its efforts to address this growing problem.

Click here to view the whistleblower’s petition and click here for more information about the case.

Wildlife Trafficking Petitions

A key focus of the campaign is curtailing illegal wildlife trafficking on Facebook and other social media websites, with four whistleblower petitions filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). These petitions provided extensive evidence regarding how the companies owning these sites have misled shareholders and the public about the extent of wildlife crime they have been facilitating. Illegal wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar annual industry that threatens both human security and biodiversity.

The wildlife trafficking petitions were the subject of an April 2018 Associated Press story entitled “Body Parts from Threatened Wildlife Widely Sold on Facebook and a June 2018 feature article in WIRED entitled  “How Facebook Groups Became a Bizarre Bazaar For Elephant Tusks.” These articles detail how NWC has become the leader in developing and implementing a cutting-edge strategy for conserving wildlife that focuses on whistleblower enforcement of disclosure laws under the Securities and Exchange Act.

NWC’s social media campaign is also highlighting how Facebook profits from illegal activity. As stated by NWC then-Executive Director (now Board Chairman) Stephen M. Kohn in the AP article,

“Facebook is not an innocent bystander to these crimes. Facebook sold advertisements on the very pages the illegal ivory was being marketed.”

In May 2018, the U.S. Congress made its voice heard as well. A letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from the House Natural Resources Committee by Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, then-Ranking Member and now Chair, and Rep. Jared Huffman, then-Vice-Ranking Member, focused on the anonymous wildlife whistleblower petitions in demanding an investigation into the illegal wildlife trafficking on Facebook. The letter noted that,

“Facebook’s lack of disclosure of the illegal activity facilitated by its site and its failure to take adequate steps to address that activity are both violations of SEC rules.”

Stephen M. Kohn, the attorney for the anonymous whistleblower(s) who filed the complaint against Facebook, said

“Facebook must be held accountable under U.S. Securities laws. Publicly- traded companies cannot profit from illegal activities, and it is intolerable that a corporation with the wealth and international reach of Facebook can play a major role in the ongoing extinction crisis, which has already claimed the last male Northern White Rhino, by selling products from animals on the critically endangered species list.”

Another key focus of NWC has been ensuring that Facebook cooperates with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and other law enforcement authorities in curtailing wildlife trafficking on its website. In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered October 9, 2018, the NWC requested that Facebook immediately start cooperating with the DOJ’s efforts to investigate and halt wildlife trafficking. The NWC learned the DOJ had subpoenaed information about illegal wildlife trafficking occurring on Facebook and that the social media giant provided data in a raw format that is very difficult and costly to analyze. NWC is committed to ensuring that Facebook stops the stonewalling and provides meaningful cooperation to crucial DOJ investigations into wildlife trafficking on its website.

The NWC, through its Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program, will continue working to eliminate wildlife trafficking on online platforms.

Petition on Sales of Stolen Antiquities

NWC is also supporting a whistleblower in a SEC petition to hold social media companies accountable for allowing looters of antiquities to run smuggling operations from their websites.  War-torn countries with rich cultural heritages, such as Syria, have seen an explosion of looting, oftentimes to finance terrorist activity by the Islamic State and others. As explained in a recent BBC report, looters and buyers connect on Facebook and coordinate their illegal transactions. NWC is providing support to the whistleblowers who brought evidence of Facebook’s role as facilitator, and deceptive statements downplaying this role, to the SEC. As written by the BBC,

Facebook is being used by networks of traffickers to buy and sell looted antiquities…. The BBC has also seen evidence that antiquities are still being smuggled from Iraq and Syria into Turkey, despite a police clampdown and the retreat of the Islamic State group.

In a statement, Facebook said coordinating illegal activity was not allowed on the site “and following the BBC’s investigation we have removed 49 groups”.

But Professor Amr al-Azm of Shawnee State University stated that these groups remain active on Facebook even after this alleged removal. He has spent two years researching hundreds of Facebook groups, many of which are private and often have thousands of members. Professor al-Azm is a co-author of the article entitled “How Facebook Made It Easier Than Ever to Traffic Middle Eastern Antiquities” in World Politics Review.

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