Last fall, a man I’ll call Michael sat down at his computer, logged into Facebook, and prepared to begin his new life as a wildlife trafficker. First, he loaded a fake profile with scenic safari photos from his made-up job in a national park in southern Africa.
Translated, that means “ivory” and “rhino horns.”
As a former law-enforcement agent in southern Africa, Michael had spent years investigating criminal networks, including the ones that trade endangered species. Now, working on behalf of an anti-poaching group, he had walked right through the front doors of Facebook’s black market in illicit wildlife, where criminal networks appear to buy and sell ivory hacked from the tusks of endangered and vulnerable elephants and horns chopped off the snouts of rhinos that are rapidly going extinct.
On Facebook, wildlife traffickers can speedily connect with buyers across the globe, fast-tracking illegal, unregulated deals from within the semiprivate world of groups. That means, in order to tackle wildlife trading, you have to first figure out Facebook. Michael’s new profile was the first step in a massive digital sting operation, aimed at exposing how Facebook facilitates the illegal wildlife trade. Eventually, the evidence he collected would help a global consortium of conservationists launch a complaint they hope will rid the site of these kinds of posts—and tamp down on trafficking writ large.
From election fraud to terrorism to drug dealing, if there’s a crime that exists in the physical world, social media has likely provided a way for it to reach a wider audience. Though most tech platforms host criminal activity, Facebook’s size and design, with billions of users and semiprivate closed groups, make it a particularly appealing place for criminals to connect with international clientele—and a particularly challenging platform to police.
At a certain point, Michael switched off his phone, because the notifications from prospective friends were overwhelming. “It’s a constant bombardment,” Michael told me via Skype on a recent Thursday afternoon. Within a week, he had some 400 friends, all eager for his goods. One message he received in late April read, simply, “hello i want buy ivory of you.”
The phony Facebook page Michael set up was one of several he and another undercover agent I’ll call Jeff have created. Both Michael and Jeff agreed to share the contents of their Facebook accounts and speak exclusively with WIRED on the condition of anonymity, due to the often dangerous nature of their work penetrating criminal networks.
In the past, groups like TRAFFIC and the Wildlife Justice Commission have released staggering reports documenting the size and scope of online trafficking. While the research generated some publicity, there have been no significant repercussions for Facebook. Which is why Michael and Jeff aren’t just drafting a report; they’re collecting evidence for an unusual complaint recently lodged with the Securities and Exchange Commission by the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, DC. They plan to use that evidence to take on the entity they believe is the real enabler of these crimes: Facebook.
The 94-page complaint, filed on behalf of an anonymous whistle-blower and released confidentially to WIRED, alleges that by facilitating illegal acts via its platform, profiting from it in the form of ads, and failing to disclose the risk of this type of abuse to its shareholders, Facebook is violating Securities and Exchange Commission regulations governing publicly traded companies. The complaint, which is essentially the equivalent of an anonymous tip for the SEC, was filed last August but wasn’t publicly reported until just last month. The SEC declined to comment for this story.
Attached to the complaint are dozens of pages of exhibits with screenshots showing photos of what appears to be lion fangs sitting below Facebook posts for Google and Pizza Hut, big cat claws for sale appearing just above an ad for Uber, a smooth grey rhino horn resting on a scale.
The legal team behind the complaint, led by one of the country’s top whistle-blower lawyers, Stephen Kohn, argues that Facebook is required by the SEC to explicitly disclose these activities to investors. He’s hoping to advance a novel and untested legal theory that by failing to disclose it, Facebook is putting the company—that is, its shareholders—at financial risk.
Facebook’s legal team declined to comment on the complaint.
The conservationists who have mounted this effort say that cutting off marketplaces online is the only way to efficiently slow down the wildlife trade before animals like elephants and rhinos are hunted into extinction. But legal experts say there’s little precedent for the SEC to pursue such a case—let alone against tech companies, which have been legally protected from liability for their users’ actions for decades. This has shielded companies and left the task of rooting out criminals online to law-enforcement agencies. In the world of wildlife trafficking, that often means targeting poachers in national parks, while the wealthy buyers and sellers remain online—and thus virtually untouchable.
But as trust in big tech companies erodes, Kohn and crew see an opening to finally take on the powerful kingpins at the top. Facebook has being accused of all manner of misdeeds—from upending elections in the United States to enabling genocide in Myanmar—and both activists and regulators are increasingly wondering whether, in the interest of allowing the internet to flourish, the tech industry has been given too much freedom. Whether the case goes forward or not, the evidence Kohn and his whistle-blowers have collected on Facebook—every sawed off elephant tusk, every tiger skin laying flat on someone’s living room floor—serves as yet another visceral reminder of the unintended consequences of all of that freedom. This case is about more than just saving the elephants; it’s about finding a way to hold Facebook accountable for a broad spectrum of problems it fails to prevent.
Stephen Kohn doesn’t have a mobile phone and never has. He’s never needed one, he says, and believes always-on technology is only “confusing people.”
So when we set up an appointment to meet among the masses at Washington, DC’s Union Station, he tells me I’ll be able to recognize him by his copy of The New Whistleblower’s Handbook. Kohn is the author of the 568-page tome, which maps out 21 rules for whistle-blowers interspersed with stories from his 34 years in the business. As I approach, I see that he has propped the book up on an overstuffed, orange backpack.
Kohn looks like the archetype of a DC lawyer. Not the kind with bespoke suits and parted, shellacked hair; the kind with his sleeves rolled up, and a pair of beat-up beige sneakers on his feet. In a courtroom drama, he’d play the scrappy David to a slick corporate Goliath. But Kohn is no underdog: He has worked for high-profile clients like White House whistle-blower Linda Tripp, and in 2012 represented a man who blew the whistle on Swiss bank UBS, resulting in the largest individual whistle-blower award in US history.
“I’m trained in winning,” Kohn tells me over his lunch of smoked salmon and soft boiled egg that he’s barely touched because he’s too busy talking and gesticulating. “I don’t want to sit around and file a bunch of nonsense. I want to win.”
Kohn had little interest in wildlife, and practically no knowledge of Facebook—until he entered a contest put on by the United States Agency for International Development, which was soliciting ideas for fighting illegal wildlife trafficking. Kohn pitched a new website that would encourage international whistle-blowers to report instances of wildlife crime by giving them a secure way to do it.
The idea won a $130,000 grand prize. Propelled by the USAID exposure, Kohn found himself meeting wildlife advocates at conferences around the world, one of whom mentioned in passing just how large a role Facebook was playing in enabling the illicit trade.
Kohn, who also has no social media accounts to speak of, was stunned. He had visions of a massive dragnet: FBI agents amassing warrants on every known Facebook trafficker and rounding them up in one epic bust. He also had fantasies of a huge payout: “If they fine those people and sanction them, guess who can get 10 to 30 percent of all these sanctions?” Kohn asks me with a giddy tone. “My whistle-blowers!” Of course, Kohn also would get a cut.
But first, he’d take the case to the SEC. Under those regulations, Kohn explains, groups of whistle-blowers can come forward anonymously and be classified as a single entity. The SEC offers some of the strongest anonymity protections of any government agency. But if, say, the FBI does pursue a case based on the evidence provided to the SEC, that protection remains intact.
Both the promise of anonymity and of an award, Kohn says, are critical to getting international wildlife whistle-blowers to come forward. “If you’re a whistle-blower outside the US, you may be at extreme risk,” he explains. “If someone contacts me from a foreign country, the more I can talk to them about layers of protection, the higher likelihood they’ll become a source.”
Kohn began talking about the idea to anyone who would listen, which is how he met Gretchen Peters. A former journalist, Peters now investigates organized crime networks as executive director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime. She’d spent much of her career working in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she’d become interested in criminal networks. The war in Afghanistan, Peters believes, wasn’t so much a war against jihadist ideologues as it was a war against drug-trafficking networks.
At 6 feet tall, the foul-mouthed blonde must have stood out darting across the Middle East interviewing Taliban fighters and drug smugglers for her book, Seeds of Terror, which made the case that the opium trade and criminal activity were bankrolling Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Until the United States dismantles this multi-billion dollar industry, she argued, it will never win the war on terror.
By the same token, she argues that the campaign against animal trafficking will never succeed unless it goes after its safe havens on social media. In the digital age, Peters says, Facebook is where the dealers set up shop, meet international suppliers, and connect with eager clients all over the world. Arresting individual poachers who shoot elephants in parks, Peters says, is like arresting the kid on the corner selling dime bags, not the kingpin he’s working for.
“We’re like, ‘Why the fuck are you going after each little trafficker? Let’s go after Facebook. Let’s shut this whole market down,” Peters tells me, her mini elephant earrings glinting in the midday sun.
Like most forms of commerce, the illicit wildlife trade shifted dramatically to online marketplaces over the past decade. In the early days, most of that activity was happening on e-commerce sites like eBay. But as it spilled onto social networks including Facebook, it became much tougher to root out.
Different countries have their own laws governing wildlife trade, and individual species are regulated differently depending on how endangered they are. China, for one, recently banned even the legal trade of ivory and ivory products.
Today, however, Facebook relies mainly on users and activist groups to report wildlife content that violates its policies. This type of monitoring is voluntary on Facebook’s part, because for decades now, Facebook and other platforms have been protected by one all-important law.
In the tech world, Section 230 is a most sacred protection, considered to be foundational to the rise of the internet, saving startups from endless lawsuits that could block their path to becoming tomorrow’s giants. But lately, as tech platforms like Facebook have amassed unforeseeable power and at times wielded it recklessly, some lawmakers and internet safety advocates have begun looking at ways to make these protections less expansive.
In April, President Trump signed into law the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which states that Section 230 doesn’t apply to platforms that knowingly host sex trafficking and prostitution-related content.
Meanwhile, courts have increasingly wrestled over more minute applications of the law: Whether Yelp, for instance, should be forced to remove defamatory reviews or whether Match.com should be required to warn users that their matches might try to stab them.
This steady chipping away of the tech industry’s armor has left what Peters and Kohn hope is an opening to make a new, if slightly wonky, argument. The moment Facebook became publicly traded, Kohn says, it became subject to all of the SEC’s regulations, including the duty to disclose material risks to the business in quarterly filings.
Kohn acknowledges his approach is untested, but it has already garnered some high-profile support. Earlier this month, the ranking members of the House Committee on Natural Resources sent a letter to the SEC, urging it to take action on Kohn’s complaint.
Technically, it’s true that the immunities contained in Section 230 don’t exempt tech companies from criminal liability or from their duties to shareholders, says Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.
That’s not covered by Section 230, Citron says, but she hastens to add, “That’s not to say this is an argument that’s easy for whistle-blowers and the SEC to make.”
Kohn and Peters saw no harm in trying. If they could find evidence that these international crimes were facilitated on a tech platform that, like Facebook, is publicly traded in the US, they believed they could use the SEC regulations to levy fines against Facebook. The SEC could impose financial penalties that would pressure the company to close these wildlife marketplaces and also, Kohn hoped, land major monetary awards for whistle-blowers in countries where wildlife trafficking is most widespread.
In short, he could make the company answer for the nefarious things happening across its pages. But first, they’d need to collect evidence from Facebook and find someone who could meet with these criminals face to face.
The quaint townhouse that’s home to the National Whistleblower Center in Georgetown is awfully sunny for a place that handles so much darkness. Here on these cobblestone streets, the closest thing to wildlife is the odd herd of drunk co-eds stumbling out of nearby house parties.
I visited on a recent Friday afternoon to see firsthand what the investigators had collected. Peters set the ground rules: For the sake of their safety, I wouldn’t be able to talk to the undercover operative—I’ll call him Anders—who has met with the traffickers in person or learn the details about how he penetrated their networks. In the past year, two anti-poaching conservationists have been murdered, one in Kenya and another in Tanzania, so there’s good reason for caution. But she agreed to let me read through the online personas Michael and Jeff built.
When I logged on to Michael’s Facebook News Feed, it looked nothing like my own. Dozens of friend requests awaited me, mostly from Vietnamese members of these private groups. As I scrolled, some profiles I saw openly showcased what appeared to be ivory bangles, ivory rings, and in at least one ironic case, mini ivory elephants, complete with tusks.
I moved down the News Feed and clicked on another friend, whose profile picture appeared to be a disembodied lion or tiger claw, crusted in gold. His timeline was filled with what looked like big cat claws for sale, some of which looked hastily hacked off, still carrying a bit of hairy knuckle. (In some parts of the world, Michael says, wearing these animal parts is something of a status symbol.)
In many cases, these deals were finalized on private messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WeChat.
These private groups showcase more than just animal parts. In one group whose name translates to “National Trade Fair,” for instance, I spotted small crystalline bags of some indiscernible drug, being sold just above what appeared to be ivory bracelets. On this particular page, Facebook even offered prospective buyers a Message Seller button to simplify the transaction. The close ties between the wildlife trade and drug trade, Kohn says, is just one reason Facebook should want to prioritize animal trafficking.
It was Anders who got the initial in with all of these groups. Last March, he began using a fake Facebook profile to befriend these likely traffickers and eventually arranged to meet them in person.
Anders met with with three traffickers in person and captured undercover video of the meetings, Kohn says. In one, which Peters showed me, a shaky hidden camera captures a Vietnamese man in a blue button-down shirt with what looks like an ivory beaded bracelet on his wrist and an iced coffee on the table. Phone in hand, he’s using Google Translate to communicate with Anders and negotiate a deal to purchase thousands of pounds of ivory.
Anders introduced Michael’s Facebook alter ego to two traffickers, who then invited him to join their private groups. Michael’s task was to amass as much evidence as he could of likely illicit wildlife being traded via Facebook.
Michael had sent a friend request to one trafficker who I’ll call Mr. Nguyen. In his profile photo, Nguyen sits like a king in an oversized wooden armchair. He’s wearing a thick necklace made out of what looks like ivory beads and a tiger claw, rings on every finger, a horn hanging from a keychain on his belt, and a heavy bangle, likely made of ivory, on his wrist.
From thousands of miles away, looking at these items on a screen, it’s impossible to know what’s real and what’s fake, which bangles are made of fresh ivory and which were, like the keys on your grandmother’s baby grand, made before the ivory trade became illegal in much of the world.
“Some user content can be easily pegged as illegal upon quick inspection. Some child porn videos, for example. Others may look potentially illegal, but it depends on facts that aren’t clear from the content,” says Eric Goldman, a Section 230 scholar and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “In an environment like Facebook, these classifications must be applied to billions of items of content every day, coming from 200-plus countries, each with their own legal regimes and cultural norms and expressed in hundreds of languages.”
When it comes to wildlife trafficking, Slackman, of Facebook, says, the company adheres to its own internal guidelines, which are influenced by an international treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. “We don’t try to follow every single local law. We build our own policies,” he says. “When we’re going after endangered animals, that may include vulnerable species that aren’t illegal in one region, but we’ve decided are going to be endangered for this purpose.”
Working with limited resources, Peters says the whistle-blowers were able to verify that 22 Facebook accounts they encountered along the way belonged to real traffickers. Altogether, those traffickers had 5,000 Facebook friends, who might be exposed to their frequent sales pitches. “If even one of those individuals says I want a ton of ivory, and I can put the money up for that, that’s a herd of elephants that’s going to get killed in Africa,” says Jeff, one of the whistle-blowers.
And yet, for Facebook, a platform of 2.2 billion people, 22 accounts isn’t even a rounding error. As far as the SEC is concerned, that matters. According to Todd Henderson, a University of Chicago law professor specializing in securities regulation, cases brought because a company failed to disclose a risk are extremely rare—especially when the risk to the stock price is relatively small or unknowable. “You don’t have to disclose every little risk,” Henderson says. “Shareholders would be inundated.”
In its most recent financial filing, Facebook acknowledges the risk of criminal activity with an all-encompassing line stating that its brands could be negatively impacted by users’ actions, including “the use of our products or services for illicit, objectionable, or illegal ends.”
The existence of Section 230 means that Facebook isn’t committing a crime by hosting this content, though it may be facilitating them. Henderson says that with so much real securities fraud going on, the idea that the SEC would go after Facebook for something that’s not criminal is “fantastical.”
“The harm to the world may be significant, but Congress made a choice to say it didn’t want to go after platforms,” Henderson says. Danielle Citron adds that Kohn’s fantasy of having Facebook hand law enforcement data on traffickers and their customers is probably just that: a fantasy. “The obligation to monitor and have responsibility for what you see? That’s covered by Section 230,” she says.
While the company does comply with certain law enforcement requestsfor user information, there are other laws in place in the US, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, that actually place strict limitations on the information Facebook can share about users without a subpoena, warrant, or court order.
Even Peters acknowledges the SEC case is a longshot. “Saying you’re trying to save the elephants by filing an SEC complaint against Facebook makes you sound like a crazy person,” she admits.
It wouldn’t be the first time a legal challenge to a tech giant has proved to be a dead end. The difference is that now, without any real federal or legal intervention, Facebook is blinking.
Mark Zuckerberg had already been testifying for four hours in the stuffy,
wood-paneled room where the House Energy and Commerce Committee held its hearing on Facebook in April, when he got a question he seemed wholly unprepared to answer. Over the course of those four hours, his company had been blamed for enabling the opioid crisis, silencing conservative voices, violating users’ rights to privacy, and setting up a modern day surveillance state akin to J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program. It seemed there was no societal ill too grave or niche that Congress couldn’t lay at Facebook’s feet.
Still, Zuckerberg appeared surprised when Georgia representative Buddy Carter asked him about the elephants. “Did you know that there are some conservation groups that assert that there’s so much ivory being sold on Facebook that it’s literally contributing to the extinction of the elephant species?” Carter asked.
“Congressman, I have not heard that,” Zuckerberg replied.
The timing wasn’t entirely random. Peters and Kohn didn’t initially plan on going public with their complaint. But when Zuckerberg reluctantly agreed to testify before two congressional hearings, they couldn’t pass up the chance to get a question in with all the world watching. So they spoke to the Associated Press, which published a news story about the SEC complaint the same week Zuckerberg was set to testify. Carter seemed to be citing Peters’ own words.
Zuckerberg’s answer or lack thereof revealed just how far down Facebook’s to-do list wildlife trafficking ranks. Zuckerberg has repeatedly used a rose-colored glasses defense about disturbing content on Facebook, copping to the fact that he focused too much, for too long, on all the good Facebook has done—while all but ignoring the bad. But that argument is tough to reconcile with the fact that Facebook’s own internal guidelines ban so very many bad things, from cannibalism to infant abuse. Indeed, Facebook is so accustomed to grotesque content appearing on the site, it offers content moderators counseling to help them deal with the horrors they’ve seen.
Facebook’s leaders aren’t unaware of the ugliness that lurks just beyond every pretty selfie. It’s just that, armed with the immunities enshrined in the United States legal code, the company’s never had to do anything about it. “Mark Zuckerberg goes around saying they’re an idealistic company, well I’m idealistic too. We’re trying to save elephants from extinction,” Peters says. “I want to see this firm put some weight behind the idealism and optimism they talk about.”
That’s starting to happen. When news broke last fall that the company had sold thousands of political ads to Russian propagandists in the runup to the 2016 election, Facebook announced it would double its content moderation team to 20,000 people, impose strict verification processes for political advertisers, and create massive repositories of political ads, complete with information on how much they cost, who paid for them, and what demographics they reached.
This spring, when the world found out that a data firm called Cambridge Analytica had amassed data on as many as 87 million Americans without their permission through a silly third-party quiz app, Facebook radically limited app developers’ data access and announced it would be auditing how all apps use Facebook user data, even if it means hiring thousands more people.
These changes are beginning to touch the wildlife world as well. In March, Facebook joined Google, Baidu, Alibaba, eBay, and a number of other companies to form a new coalition with the World Wildlife Fund. Its goal is to reduce illicit wildlife trade online by 80 percent by the year 2020.
As members, the companies commit to establishing clear anti-trafficking policies, training staff to identify illegal wildlife products, working with academics to develop AI tools that detect content that includes endangered species, and educating their users about illicit wildlife trade. Instagram, meanwhile, started working with the fund last December to create popup alerts that appear when users search for hashtags, like #lionselfie, that are often linked to wildlife trade.
Since it began working with the WWF, Facebook has implemented new training techniques for moderators, replacing lengthy, complex manuals about different species’ level of endangerment, with a short cheat sheet that helps moderators more easily identify the most commonly traded species. The company also works with WWF advocates around the world, who report instances of animal trafficking on the platform, though Slackman couldn’t say how much of this content is being removed annually.
“Them stepping up and saying they’re part of this global coalition is a major breakthrough,” says Crawford Allan, senior director of TRAFFIC at the World Wildlife Fund. Still, he acknowledges that as long as posts glorifying terrorism and child pornography live on Facebook, saving the elephants will likely remain a low priority. “You have to go for the highest risk that affects the most people,” Allan says. “The reality is the world has other priorities that Facebook has to deal with.”
By Slackman’s own admission, Facebook has spent the last few years focusing on eliminating terrorist content with automated tools that can remove problematic posts before a single user sees them. That effort has had middling success. Now, it’s expanding those tools to deal with images of graphic violence, which may include images of animal abuse. That kind of technology wouldn’t capture the ornate carvings and decorative pieces I saw on Michael’s News Feed, but Facebook’s leaders have vowed to use automation techniques to catch other types of prohibited content in the future.
What Kohn, Peters, and so many others are seeking is a solution that’s better than promises easily broken. They may well fail in the courtroom. But even if they do, if the last two years of extinguishing fires has taught the tech industry anything, it’s that just because they’re not required to act, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
Zuckerberg has acknowledged it will take years to fix what’s broken at Facebook. And yet, that’s time that some endangered species don’t have.
The day I spoke with Michael, a few weeks after Zuckerberg’s testimony, he said he’d checked in with some of the biggest traffickers and private groups in his phony Facebook network. They were all still there, right where he found them, he said. “It’s business as usual.”