The use of social media to communicate and make plans has set the ongoing migration crisis apart from previous waves of migration. But there is a dark side to services like Facebook that may harm, rather than help, its users.
Smartphone technology has provided solutions to many of the challenges migrants encounter on their journeys and empowered them to be better informed. Apps and services such as GPS, used to map itineraries, or messaging services and social media platforms to stay in touch with families, have made phones the most prized possessions for refugees and migrants.
However, social media services such as Facebook have recently been implicated in huge data-related scandals. While some refugees may not necessarily be worried about their data as they face more immediate problems, the issue of data abuse affects migrants just as much as the rest of society.
A tool used by traffickersAt first glance, the Facebook data scandal itself doesn't appear to implicate migrants. About 87 million accounts are said to have been compromised, mostly in the United States. Many people believe that false information ("fake news") shown on those accounts played a role in the 2016 US elections, swaying voters' opinions in favor of President Donald Trump.
The scope of the data breach shows the magnitude of the influence that Facebook and other social media services exert over their users' lives. This extends to refugees and migrants who trust Facebook as a tool to help facilitate their journeys. But the social media platform doesn't always do that; in fact, there is proof that it has inadvertently helped people smugglers.
The European Migrant Smuggling Center (EMSC), set up by the EU's Europol law enforcement agency in response to the refugee crisis, reported 1,150 social media accounts suspected of aiding human traffickers in 2016 – a reported 87 percent increase compared with the previous year. The phenomenon is significant enough for Europol to give it its own name: e-smuggling."Facilitated illegal migration and associated content became not only increasingly visible in the online environment, but also significantly increased in quantity and complexity. Various social media platforms are increasingly used and abused by criminal groups almost without impunity, to openly advertise smuggling services," the EMSC says.
Frontex, the EU's external border protection agency, also says that "(s)ocial media is a popular tool used by smuggling networks to advertise their services and by migrants themselves to gather information about the journey ahead and to contact friends and relatives."
Live streaming of extortion and torture
There's an even more worrying side to the role that Facebook and other social media platforms can play in the lives of refugees.
"We know of specific instances in which so-called private channels are being used as a means of extortion and torture, Leonard Doyle, director of media and communication at the UN migration agency (IOM), told the migration platform "Refugees Deeply" in a recent podcast. "For example, we were given access to a recording of a Facebook Live a couple of months back of Ethiopians and Somalis who were being kept under awful detention conditions in Libya."
These were being sent in little snippets by Whatsapp groups and the like to families back home to extort money from them,"
Doyle added that Facebook and Whatsapp, which is also owned by Facebook, have become the go-to media sources for people embarking on migrations, and that this involved certain risks that traditional news and media sources didn't have even ten years ago.
"The mainstream media is a shadow of what it was. New media forms tend to be digital platforms. And they, for whatever reasons, seem to think they don't have a responsibility, which the traditional media sees that it has, to be a communicator of civic values," he said.
A dangerous "travel agency" for migrants
Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, also told "Refugees Deeply" that people smugglers treat social media as a form of advertising, "putting up the services that they're offering almost like a travel site would."
"And then generally after that, most of the transactions move offline."
Reitano said different refugee communities might be more susceptible to the dangers of smugglers on social media:
"If you compare the percentage of Syrians who had a smartphone to the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans who had a smartphone, it's less than five percent of Africans who had a smartphone, who would be regularly accessing these sorts of sites."
Irrespective of the number of people using Facebook and other social media platforms to access potentially harmful people smugglers, Doyle also said that governments should put more pressure on social media companies to take responsibility for the content they share."It's about time the tide has turned on many of the digital platforms and for a look at their responsibility of many of the perversions of the system."