Facebook was today accused of allowing migrants to be lured to their death in the Mediterranean as Britain’s top law enforcement body hit out over the tech giant’s failure to stop people smugglers advertising on its network.
The National Crime Agency said it had found more than 800 Facebook pages that were linked to organised crime gangs involved in ferrying migrants into and across Europe for money.
It said the pages included adverts for “vessels, documents and transport services” and instructions on where to meet to board boats used to send them across the sea. But it warned that despite the large number of occasions on which criminals were exploiting its network, Facebook was not doing enough to address the problem.
The law enforcers’ rebuke will place fresh pressure on the social media network following growing controversy about its failure to stop fake news, hate speech and other unsuitable material from appearing on its site.
Shares in the company – which has also been criticised for its handling of its users’ data - plunged nearly 20 per cent last month in response, wiping a record $119 billion of its stock market value.
Today’s new revelations will fuel the concerns about its conduct and were made by the National Crime Agency’s deputy director Tom Dowdall during an interview with the Evening Standard.
He said that migrant deaths in the Mediterranean – which total more than 1,500 so far this year – remained high and that victims were too often being recruited via Facebook.
“They are being lured to their deaths using an application that they are using every day of the week,” he said.
“Since December 2016, we have identified over 800 Facebook pages which we consider as being associated with organised immigration crime. That is largely offering vessels, documents, transport services. There is enough we are seeing to indicate to us that it supports criminality.”
He added: “We have a problem here which we need to address. We just haven’t had enough willingness yet.
“The technology exists with big providers like Facebook and others to develop the right algorithms... to identify what look like risky pages. They are not stepping up in the way we would want.”
Mr Dowdall, who leads the National Crime Agency’s fight against human trafficking and modern slavery, said each suspect page that it identified was referred to the EU’s crime fighting body, Europol, to assist in its investigations.
He said the pages were then taken down, but that this action was too slow and Facebook should do more to stop the adverts appearing in the first place.
“Our view is if more care was taken I would expect us to be referring much fewer than 800 and certainly not continuing to do referrals,” he said.
“The first indications for us were the vessels in the Mediterranean and the Aegean and the fact that crime groups were using Facebook to access customers and instruct them where they need to go - so ‘tonight be in this certain location at a certain time in order to get the vessel’.”
He added: “Organised immigration crime and human trafficking might look like it’s all face to face activity. That isn’t completely true. There is still a significant use put to social media platforms, to websites.
“Documents, accessing documents and visas, passports and ID cards. These are services that are not just advertised on the dark net, in fact it’s in their interest to be on the worldwide web, and we see people offering services of whole packages – the complete transport.
“Facebook have developed a fantastic ability to be able to identify patterns and how everybody operates on a day to day basis.
“This is no different: there will be patterns that are developed here which we know that Facebook and others can be onto really quickly. We need their cooperation to be able to identify and to either close down these sites or be able to further investigate them.”
The latest disclosures follow strong criticism of Facebook and other online giants, including Google, Twitter and YouTube, in a report published earlier this year by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on hate crime and extremism.
The MPs said that despite some progress the “biggest and richest social media companies are shamefully far from taking sufficient action to tackle illegal and dangerous content” and accused them of being “completely irresponsible” in their failure “to abide by the law, and to keep their users and others safe.” The committee called for ministers to consider the introduction of new penalties, including large fines, for online companies that fail to remove illegal content within a strict time limit.
A Facebook spokeswoman insisted that the tech giant was taking the problem seriously.
“People smuggling is illegal and any posts, pages or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook,” she said.
“We work closely with law enforcement agencies around the world including Europol to identify, remove and report this illegal activity, and we’re always improving the methods we use to identify content that breaks our policies, including doubling our safety and security team to 20,000 people and investing in technology.”
Other social media sites are also used by people traffickers. They inlcude Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
One advert on its network identified by the National Crime Agency as being placed by an organised crime group depicts images of different passports and their successful use by travellers in an attempt to highlight the gang’s ability to get people across borders.