Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Apr. 14, 2016, 3:32pm

In 2011, Peter Beaumont wrote an article for The Guardian arguing that the face of the Arab Spring was “a young man or a young woman with a smart phone.” From videos posted on Facebook that chronicled the atrocities carried out by the Gadhafi regime, to activists who tweeted from Tahrir square, social media played an important role in the revolutions that occurred all over the Middle East and North Africa. As Beaumont writes, “the medium that carries the message shapes and defines as well as the message itself,” and that medium was undoubtedly the smartphone.

The speed with which the news of the revolutions arrived in living rooms across the globe was only matched by the speed with which the uprisings themselves broke out. Social media not only allowed information to spread quickly but allowed people to organize with precision. Is it any wonder, then, that Tunisia shut down Facebook for 16 days at the height of the revolution? Or that they were forced to put Facebook back online when hacktivists threatened to shut down government access to the internet? In Libya, Facebook was used to articulate medical needs, post important phone numbers, and place messages from hospitals in need of blood donations. It brought people together, mobilized them around a cause, and encouraged social responsibility and accountability.

Professor Phil Howard, author of a study conducted by the University of Washington about the use of social media in the Arab uprisings observed, “People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.” Social media in 2016, however, in wake of the political vacuum created by the fall of the Gadhafi regime, is reportedly being used for much more sinister purposes. And if, as Beaumont wrote about the Arab Spring, “the medium is the message,” then Facebook now carries the anguish of Libya’s violent, destructive present. As Islamic State militants continue to stage attacks across Libya, Facebook, instead of being a “toolkit for greater freedom,” has become a tool for illegal arms sales.

In a recent New York Times article C. J. Chivers writes, “A terrorist hoping to buy an antiaircraft weapon in recent years needed to look no further than Facebook, which has been hosting sprawling online arms bazaars, offering weapons ranging from handguns and grenades to heavy machine guns and guided missiles.” Looking back on the Arab Spring, and after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the days of hospitals using Facebook to post requests for blood donations seem long gone. Gone, too, are the days of pro-democracy activists posting the time and place to gather in an effort to bring about freedom and change. Now in Libya Facebook is being used to sell military weapons to armed militias, and members of ISIS, who then use those weapons to terrorize Libyan citizens.

Small arms and light weapons traded via social media in Libya.
Small arms and light weapons traded via social media in Libya. | Armament Research Service

The origins of these munitions are often difficult to trace through online photographs but a recent study carried out by the privately owned group Armament Research Services (ARES) estimates that most of the “light arms” for sale on Facebook originate from the former Soviet Union and are holdovers from the Gadhafi regime. Other news agencies suggest the possibility that these arms are being diverted from third-party states to fuel conflict in Libya.

Regardless of the origin, ARES reports that up to 300 posts related to arms sales occur each month in Libya. The kinds of arms that are for sale can tell us a lot about the people who are buying them. For example, the rifles are mostly Kalashnikov assault rifles, known to be used by many militants in the region, including ISIS, while people who buy pistols are, more generally, everyday citizens seeking personal protection against these armed groups. And although Facebook banned the private sale of firearms and weapons in January, The Times found 7 arms-sale groups on Facebook just this month.

Facebook recently claimed that they will take action to stop these weapons sales. But because Facebook’s ability to carry out their policy on firearms is largely reliant upon user reports, a swift end to firearm sales in Libya seems unlikely. While social media might seem like an unlikely place to begin an analysis of the current situation in ISIS controlled territories, the changing face of Facebook, and the terrorist turn to Twitter, requires further, more serious, investigation.      

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