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How can social media platforms combat Libya's illicit arms trade?

A new study by the Armaments Research Group finds that online sellers are responsible for an illicit arms trade through social media platforms in Libya. 

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    Martin Kobler, United Nations Special Representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, is reflected in a glass table during a press interview in Tunis, Tunisia.
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A recent study by the consulting group Armament Research Services (ARES) finds that online marketplaces are selling weapons to groups in the Middle East by way of social media and communications platforms.

This report focuses on the online sale of weapons in Libya, which has been in chaos since the fall of the Qaddafi in 2011. The New York Times reports that social media websites such as Facebook inadvertently provide the platform for many weapons sales.

"Social media platforms are appealing to sellers," said one of the report's authors, Nic Jenzen-Jones in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, "because they allow them to advertise in a meaningful way."

The ARES group studied 97 online weapons trades in Libya over an 18-month period for this first initial report. The group is due to publish a longer report in approximately 10 weeks that will include information from 1,364 online sales in a number of other countries.

Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi exercised strict control over the country's arms market during his reign, and his death caused a sudden flowering in the illicit arms trade.  

According to the ARES report, the majority of weapons sellers are between 20 and 30 years old, and several have suspected or known ties to armed non-state groups.

Some of the light weapons sold online include machine guns, rocket launchers, antitank guided weapons, portable air defense systems, and grenade launchers, among other weapons.

Researchers believe that the popularity of these weapons over less-expensive small arms indicates that the purchasers of such weaponry may be individuals associated with armed groups.

"The sources of firearms are diverse," says Mr. Jenzen-Jones. "Primarily, most of these originated with the former Qaddafi regime."

The impact of light weapons trade is not confined to Libya, either. According to Jenzen-Jones, it is not unknown for arms buyers from elsewhere in the region to travel to Libya to buy weapons, because of the comparative absence of government in Libya.

What can be done about these weapons trades?

"It is difficult," Jenzen-Jones told the Monitor, "to moderate these sellers effectively, due to the fluid nature of the trade"

Social media platforms have taken steps to control illicit weapons deals made through or facilitated by their sites. For example, Facebook banned the private sale of guns using its platform in late January, to general praise by gun-control advocates.

Monitoring illegal online sellers is difficult, says Jenzen-Jones. When social media sites locate an illicit online marketplace, they shut it down, only to have the same core group of users pop up less than 48 hours later in a new marketplace.

The illicit online trade of weaponry is a problem that requires a public-private partnership to solve. Although that may be difficult to achieve in Libya, the problem on online gun sales to non-state groups can impact the entire region.

"Using social media platforms creates a number of problems," said Council on Foreign Relations expert David Fidler. "Including the problem of flow and accessibility of weapons in the international market. It’s not just a law enforcement problem, it is a national security problem."

Companies, including social media and communications platforms, will have to work together, says Mr. Fidler, to combat illicit weapons sales.

"This connects to a larger set of problems where we see that companies and governments have to respond to the negative externalities of cyberspace."

Still, according to Jenzen-Jones, "There is a good chance that these weapons would be sold, regardless of social media platforms."

 
 
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