Dangerous Digital Liaisons: An inquiry into digital policies regarding migrant smuggling on social media

Published 2 April 2020 / By Johanna Bankston

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The advent of social media in the early 2000s facilitated the creation of illicit activities which governments were unprepared to handle. Amongst them were smuggling networks that utilize social media to advertise their services to migrants. While the European Union (EU) has increased smuggling deterrence measures significantly since 2015, migrants continue to lose their lives in attempts to enter Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. The Missing Migrants Project estimates that 20,022 migrants died on this dangerous route between 2014 and 2020.

Such high rates of fatality, amidst the increasingly public nature of smuggling on social media, begs the question: what is being done at the digital level — by both governments and social media companies alike — to deter smuggling and promote the safety of migrants? This piece will explore the landscape of approaches being taken to combat this growing threat.

Migrants and smugglers on Facebook

Over the last two decades, smugglers have used new technologies to make themselves more visible and accessible to migrants. And, at the same time, they’ve become more difficult for governments to trace. Social media sites, such as Facebook, enable smugglers to publicly advertise their services to migrants on open and closed groups, individual profiles, and pages. Advertisements typically offer a range of items and information, including fake documentation, prices by transportation method and route, travel guarantees, contact information, and multimedia testimonials from previous clients. Using Facebook’s audience features, smugglers are able to target their populations of interest while avoiding detection by changing group names, marketing themselves as travel agencies, or using fake identities. Once smugglers establish contact on these social networks, communication is transferred to private ICT platforms, like WhatsApp or Telegram, making them difficult to track.

Migrants use social media to identify smugglers based on their specific needs for safety, costs, routes, and destinations. Access to such a “marketplace” of smugglers offers migrant users a certain degree of agency and choice. However, while migrants may have increased control over the options presented to them on social media, contracting smugglers online may give them less control over the outcomes of their journeys, as the digital interface enables smugglers to misrepresent services offered. Inaccurate information heightens the risk of death or other harms, which many migrants report experiencing at the hands of their smugglers. This includes unsafe conditions, extortion, abuse, sexual assault, and — in some cases — being sold to traffickers.

EU actions against smuggling

Around 2016, the EU identified social media as a prime opportunity for smuggling deterrence. The European Commission launched an inquiry into EU member states’ respective monitoring of social media platforms. Responses of states indicated large discrepancies in approaches. Most countries admitted to having relevant authorities monitor social media for smuggling activity through a variety of avenues, though they disagreed on what pages were actually appropriate to monitor. Some of the respondents did not monitor social media at all, indicating that they had insufficient technological resources. Subsequent EU action plans on migrant smuggling called for the following measures:

  • Standardize EU policy on social media monitoring and digital investigation;
  • Increase cooperation between governments and private social media companies;
  • Give greater responsibility to social media websites to detect smuggling content;
  • Spread counter-narratives on social media to influence migrants to avoid smugglers.

Despite the policy recommendations, EU member states have continued to claim that they are unable to effectively monitor social media for such content due to a lack of resources, current EU digital privacy laws, and limited jurisprudence on e-evidence in smuggling cases. The EU continues to call on social media companies to take ownership of monitoring their own users.

Social media responsibility: Facebook as a case study

But what does that ownership look like?

While Facebook, as a company, offers detailed policies regarding trafficking on its Community Standards page, it barely addresses human smuggling, except to say that related content will be removed. The justification given for the company’s lack of attention towards smuggling content is that trafficking is a crime against a person, while smuggling is a crime against a state. This justification reflects the tech giant’s position that the largest share of responsibility lies with EU states, or governmental bodies in general. Facebook administrators expressed that while they do take down smuggling-related content that is flagged by users or moderators, the site cannot give as much priority to monitoring such content as they do for trafficking. This leaves gaps in knowledge about Facebook’s official tactics to deter smugglers from using its platform.

However, we can surmise that the tools the platform engages to track human-trafficking content are the same tools they would use to tackle smuggling operations. With that being said, Facebook has invested in the following anti-trafficking interventions:

  • Hashing: attribute unique PhotoDNA to images for legal use;
  • Algorithms: detect and flag patterns of interest and/or participation in illicit activity;
  • Content moderation: review and remove illegal content by reviewers;
  • Cyber reporting: report images to cyber hotlines where they are stored as evidence.

While it is unclear whether Facebook currently uses the aforementioned tactics to actively deter smuggling-related content, their hand may be forced into doing so in the near future when the EU implements the Digital Services Act in  2020. Under current EU e-commerce law, Facebook is not responsible for illegal content on its website until it is flagged by a user or content moderator. However, under the new law, internet companies will be held more responsible for the illegal actions of their users. That, in turn, could make a difference.

In sum, current measures to prevent migrant harm — or even death — at the hands of smugglers on social media platforms remain wholly insufficient. Such inaction is the result of the ongoing struggle between EU member states and tech companies to sufficiently agree on a shared bill of responsibility to take action. The impending Digital Services Act may legally shift this weight onto social media companies, but governmental bodies still have a moral responsibility to standardize practices on social media monitoring. Because, ultimately, preventing harm at the low-stakes, digital level will save lives out at sea.

About the author: Johanna Bankston is currently an MSc candidate in the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies programme.