Parmy Olson

Guns Are Banned on Facebook, But Sellers Find a Way

Close to 70% of American adults use Facebook. They peruse the pages of old school friends, browse cooking videos and click on titillating news headlines. Once in a while, they will also stumble across a video of a live shooting or buy a semi-automatic rifle with relative ease.

The pattern of mass shootings in the US, highlighted in the past two weeks with massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, has roots in political, cultural and structural issues, but the contribution of social media, and Facebook in particular, to violence in the country shouldn’t be ignored.

Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook has helped foster personal relationships and grow businesses over its 18 years of existence. But the platform’s legacy also includes a chronic failure to enforce its own rules. Facebook policy prohibits hate speech and misinformation on the site, yet harmful conspiracy theories proliferate because Facebook’s automated software for weeding out that material is inadequate. Another major problem: The company employs nowhere near enough moderators to police toxic content.

That lack of investment leads to consequences like the 46,000 times a link to the Buffalo shooting video was shared on Facebook last week, or the 10 hours it took for the company to remove it, according to the Washington Post. The man who carried out that attack had been inspired by another video on Facebook, livestreamed by the 2019 mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 people. Facebook pledged to eradicate copies of the livestream, but as of this month, clips from the video were still being viewed thousands of times on the platform. Facebook isn’t the cause of these violent acts, but it has been culpable of failing to prevent them from being seen by potential copycats.

It also appears relatively easy to buy a gun on Facebook. The company bans the sale of guns on Facebook Marketplace, its site for secondhand goods used by more than one billion people around the world. But run a search for “gun case” and you’ll find at least a few disguised listings for firearms. Most will be recommended by Facebook’s own algorithms, under the “Results from outside your search” feature.

This week I reached out to 10 sellers in Texas and Georgia whose listings hinted their title was a pretense: The price was an implausible $1, or they would put the word “case” in quotation marks, or implored buyers to “PM me for details” to find out “what’s inside.”

Five of the sellers replied with photos or details of semi-automatic rifles or pistols made by brands like Glock Ges m.b.H. and Sturm, Ruger & Co. One was a federally licensed gun dealer who had started selling on Marketplace last year. There were no similar listings that I saw on competing sites like EBay Inc. and Craigslist.

These violations might be excusable if not for the fact that Facebook has known about the “gun cases” ruse for more than three years and has been pressed to fix it by several US senators.

A Facebook spokesperson said Marketplace uses machine-learning software to review its listings, though some are checked by people, too. Around 40,000 people across Meta work on safety and security, she added. She didn’t respond to an emailed question about how many humans actually police Marketplace.

The answer may be very low: about 400, according to a report last year by investigative journalism site ProPublica, which referred to them as “low-paid contract workers” employed by consulting firm Accenture Plc.

Facebook doesn’t need to ban gun cases on Marketplace outright, but it should hire more people to help weed out the obvious listings of firearms, many of which are likely being sold without background checks.

Stopping the rule-breaking on Facebook won’t be easy. And the company deserves some credit for spending $13 billion on safety efforts since the 2016 US presidential election. Without that investment, Facebook would be much messier than it is today. One of the executives who first helped draft Facebook’s content rules is quoted as saying in “Facebook: The Inside Story” by veteran technology journalist Steven Levy that Facebook would be “absolutely bananas…if it were not for content moderation.”

Ultimately it’s up to lawmakers to push for universal background checks or bans on AR-15s. But Facebook also has the capacity to commit far more resources to be a safer conduit for information and commerce around guns. It has, after all, spent more than $10 billion building an as-yet unproven metaverse business.

History will probably look back on that as a spectacular waste of money given the harms Facebook has propagated, but Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg seems unwilling to believe the negative effects of “connecting people” are that bad.

On Thursday, at Facebook’s annual general meeting for shareholders, angry investors criticized the company’s sloppy handling of misinformation and hateful content, and the psychological harm it had caused children, before proposing motions that called for Meta to submit to more independent oversight. None of the 12 proposals received more than 30% support, according to ABC News. The reason: Zuckerberg controls 58% of Facebook’s voting shares. He is its supreme ruler.

Before this week’s horrific school shooting in Uvalde fades into memory like all the others, it’s worth asking whether the world’s most powerful social media platform is acting as a counter to America’s gun violence problem, or contributing to it. My bet is on the latter, and that needs to change.