Social Media: The Front Lines of International Scandal and Crime

The beginning of May was marked by an explosion of international developments as long-time secret online actors based in Russia, Germany and the Middle East were uncovered.

According to the BBC, the identity of the anti-Kremlin troll, StalinGulag, was revealed. The man behind the anti-Kremlin campaign, Alexander Gorbunov, has 300,000 followers on the Russian social media platform, Telegram, and millions of followers on Twitter.

Since 2013, Gorbunov has critiqued the Russian government using an online alias. Fearing harm to his family, however, he recently revealed his identity. The BBC reported that police had visited the apartment of Gorbunov’s elderly mother the first week of May. Police told her that someone made a fake bomb threat from her phone. Other relatives of Gorbunov have also been approached by Russian police, forcing StalinGulag to trade anonymity for protection.

Gorbunov has been called “the most important political columnist in Russia” by one of Russia’s biggest opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny. Through the StalinGulag social media accounts, Gorbunov has written about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visiting Russia, the recent Ukrainian presidential elections, the treatment of HIV positive youth in Siberia and a Russian military coup in Sudan.

“I just wanted to write,” he said to BBC. “My computer and the internet meant I could follow what was going on in the rest of the world… I’ve always been interested in politics.”

Online identities were also revealed in Germany, where police arrested three men suspected of running the second largest illegal market on the dark web, a corner of the internet inaccessible to mainstream web-consumers. The operation was called “Wall Street Market” and used cryptocurrency to sell “illegal drugs, stolen data and malicious software.”

The arrest was made in partnership with Dutch police and Europol, which recently worked with the French police to take down a similar dark web operation known as Valhalla Marketplace.

After busting the “Wall Street Market” in Germany, authorities found more than €550,000, or $615,000 USD in cash and more than €1 million, or $1,118,245 USD in the cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and Monero. The men running the online market received two to six percent of the sales made to more than 1.1 million accounts. Products included everything from cocaine to expensive cars to stolen data.

The three operators arrested in Germany were not the only ones using the dark web to make a profit. Police discovered that more than 5,400 sellers could be found from all over Europe.

While some people use the hidden, remote parts of the internet to conduct illegal business, others use Facebook. According to the BBC, traffickers who have stolen antiquities from Syria and Iraq in the wake of ISIS’ retreat, are using Facebook to sell these artifacts to buyers in Turkey.

Facebook took down at least 49 of these groups after the BBC conducted an investigation into the smuggling rings. BBC was aided by Professor Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist from Syria who currently teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Amr al-Azm combed through hundreds of Facebook groups that contain thousands of members over the course of two years and has found people trying to sell treasures such as a sculpture from the ancient site of Palmyra and Roman mosaics.

“What we’ve seen is an explosion of sites and users on Facebook,” said Amr al-Azm to BBC. “It’s transnational and Facebook is essentially allowing this to happen on its watch.”

Not only are these Facebook groups used to sell stolen items but they also give smugglers advice on how to dig up sites without getting caught or being buried alive while excavating. The BBC also found that buyers use Facebook to request items for traffickers to steal. Moreover,  the BBC approximates that about 70 percent of all the items coming out of Syria are fakes or copies.

Though Facebook has taken a stand against illegal activity on the platform and has removed dozens of groups, Professor Amr al-Azm says he is still seeing trafficking not only from Syria but from groups based all over the world.

As individuals continue to gain expertise on how to manipulate the mostly unregulated internet, vigilantism, scandal and crime will also continue to define the international stage.

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