March 3, 2020

Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and now TikTok being used to memorialize cultural heritage crimes

Screenshot of TikTok Video showing unauthorized excavation
In the past few years, and for better or worse, social media has completely rewritten the way the world communicates. As more and more humans, from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds, stare mesmerised by the glowing screen of smartphones, the intersection between social media and art crimes grows unabated, and seemingly unstoppable by traditional law enforcement methods.   The monitoring of social media documented crimes, is most often focused on detecting drug crimes or human trafficking. Taking a bite out of heritage crime seems like a luxury.  Especially in police departments with few, if any, trained resources with experience in this new frontier. 

While mainstream social media networks have explicit rules on the kind of content they permit, criminal actors change profiles like most of us change our underwear.  Today's Igor becomes tomorrow's Ahmed, or better still, a sexy brunette named Elisabetta. This ability to morph into another avatar allows criminals to reach would-be "consumers" continents away simply with the tap of a finger and an endless supply of well-curated, high-definition pictures or tantalizing videos.

Facebook groups can and are being created where the privacy settings are such that only the group’s members are aware of the group's existence, and joining is monitored by gatekeeper administrators.  Entrances are granted by invitation or by screening, which sometimes makes monitoring them a game of whack-a-mole.

Open for business, those breaking the law are able to hide in plain sight, advertising their illegal wares directly via an ever-changing parade of profiles which post videos, photos and statuses onto social media feeds or via ‘stories’ , documenting the illicit objects they have available, sometimes with proof of life details.  Once a potential buyer is identified, the conversations quickly switch to DM, (direct messaging), or move off site altogether to encrypted chat applications.

Take a look at this February video downloaded from the app TikTok. 


To highlight the growing problem, and how these images can incentivise copycat crimes, the Turkish archaeology magazine Aktüel Arkeoloji Dergisi published this video, sent to them by one of their readers.  In the live broadcast, uploaded to the social media platform TikTok, a team of unauthorized scavengers can be seen excavating an entire sarcophagus with the help of heavy machinery.

What can social media sites do as a deterrence? 

In an effort to combat drug crimes and make sales videos harder to find, TikTok bans popular drug hashtags like #cocaine, #methamphetamine #heroin, but often misses the ever changing street slang terms associated with their use.   A quick search of more subtle hashtags like, #blues, #kickers, #40, #80, when strung together with other key words, lead you to posts advertising OxyContin and not blues musicians or football players.  Hashtags for treasure hunting, using words like lahit mezar which are language or dialect specific are even harder for sites to screen for.

TikTok is said to now be used in 150 countries and is labelled in the app store as being for those aged 12 and over.  The 16 second video above already had more than one million views before anyone could raise a red flag.

By:  Lynda Albertson

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