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Gun Sellers Use New Tactic to Deal on Facebook Marketplace

By Parmy Olson 

Gun sellers have adopted a new tactic to attract buyers on Facebook Inc.'s Marketplace -- a year after Democratic lawmakers called on Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to more-effectively police the site's ban on firearm sales.

Similar to Craigslist, Facebook's Marketplace allows the social media platform's more than 2.7 billion users to list goods they want to sell, alongside a price and a description. The company bars many items from Marketplace, including the private sale of guns or ammunition.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that dozens of would-be sellers across 10 U.S. cities were advertising rifles and handguns on the site, but disguising them in posts as gun cases or empty gun boxes, often accompanied by photos of the cases with gun-manufacturer logos.

Now, a new tactic involves posts purporting to sell stickers, alongside images of gun makers' logos. Sellers typically ask an interested party to send a private message via the service for more information. Several sellers contacted by the Journal responded to say they were actually selling guns, not stickers, and provided details and pricing.

The Journal, using a simple search for "gun sticker" and "stickers," over two days earlier this month surfaced more than 40 posts that purported to be selling stickers, next to images of gun makers' logos, or a particular caliber ammunition. After that search, Facebook's recommendation algorithm offered a Journal reporter a full page of more than 50 similar postings across multiple U.S. states.

A separate, one-day analysis conducted last week by Storyful identified more than a dozen listings for stickers of popular gun brand logos, including Smith & Wesson Brands Inc. and Remington Outdoor Co., across 10 U.S. cities. In Lexington, Ky., and San Angelo, Texas, for instance, the search found two listings in each city for stickers related to gun brands. Storyful is a social-media intelligence agency owned by News Corp, which also owns the Journal. While some gun manufacturers have profile pages on Facebook, there is no indication they sell firearms on the site.

One seller in Amory, Miss., posted the logo for Glock Ges.m.b.H., an Austrian maker of semiautomatic handguns, describing his item as a "0.40 sticker," for $450. He also posted "PM for info," a shorthand way of asking interested parties to send a private message via the Facebook Marketplace platform for more information. When contacted by the Journal, the seller said he was actually selling a Glock .40-caliber pistol.

Another seller in Beech Grove, Tenn., advertised a "Great little sticker 22 inches" for $300, next to an image of the logo for Savage Arms Inc., a gun maker based in Westfield, Mass. Over a private message, he sent photos of a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle. Two other posters, contacted by the Journal, confirmed they were selling firearms, not stickers.

Facebook said earlier this month, as part of a quarterly report on how it polices content across the site, that it had removed 1.3 million pieces of content related to firearms between April and June 2020, a number similar to the first three months of the year. Facebook didn't specify in its report, or following a query from the Journal, if this content was on Marketplace, its Groups service or from users' individual Newsfeeds.

"We take action against anyone we catch trying to sell guns on our platform," a Facebook spokeswoman said, when asked about the proliferation of gun-sticker posts on Marketplace. "We've removed listings that were flagged and will continue to investigate."

The new tactic has emerged as Americans buy guns in record numbers. The boom has been attributed to the new coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest related to the killing of George Floyd and efforts in some cities to defund police forces.

It also comes as Facebook's ability to police content on its site faces fresh scrutiny on several fronts. In the wake of the pandemic, conspiracy theories about the virus have proliferated on the platform, according to NewsGuard, which monitors news sites that it says traffic in dubious information. Facebook said it had removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of what it determined to be harmful misinformation and was directing its users to resources from health authorities.

Separately, Facebook has been accused of applying hate-speech rules unevenly around the world. Facebook said it prohibits hate speech globally "without regard to anyone's political position or party affiliation."

The private sale of firearms is legal in the U.S., and while sales across state lines are meant to be funneled through licensed gun dealers, prosecutions are rare when they aren't. People barred from owning guns, due to state or federal restrictions, can turn to online exchanges and social-media sites to avoid background checks when making a transaction.

Like the rest of the site, Facebook's Marketplace platform uses a combination of artificial-intelligence algorithms and human moderators to weed out posts that violate its policies, such as ads for guns, drugs or animals, the company says. Last year, in response to the Journal's reporting on guns being marketed as boxes or cases, a group of 15 Democratic senators, including now-vice-presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, wrote to Facebook demanding information on how it polices gun sales on Marketplace.

Facebook responded to the senators' questions in a letter saying it was building new tools to better detect bad behavior, and increasing its team of people who reviewed listings on its Marketplace. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), who spearheaded the government's inquiry, said the continued gun sales suggested Facebook's reviewers were doing a "lousy job."

Georgia-based Rob Disner, an audio engineer who tracks suspected gun sales on Facebook in his spare time and says he isn't affiliated with antigun groups, said he had flagged more than 100 postings of gun-manufacturer logos marked as stickers to Facebook's content moderators since January. For about half, he was notified by Facebook that they were reviewed. None was taken down, he said. Mr. Disner said it was easy to tell that the ads were for guns, and that messaging a seller usually confirmed it.

Mr. Disner said Facebook's algorithm now also automatically shows him such posts whenever he goes on the site. "When you start to search for stickers," he said, "they show up all the time in your feed."

Write to Parmy Olson at parmy.olson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 24, 2020 08:22 ET (12:22 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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