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Report: Human smugglers increasingly use Facebook to advertise services on the US-Mexico border

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(CNN) —  

Human smugglers are increasingly utilizing Facebook to advertise services to migrants seeking to cross the US-Mexico border, according to a report released Friday by a tech transparency group.

The influx of migrants, especially unaccompanied minors, at the US southern border has overwhelmed the government’s resources in the last month and posed a steep challenge for the Biden administration. The administration has also been up against human smugglers who in some cases have marketed their services on Facebook, a platform critics say has failed to uphold its content moderation commitments.

Of the 50 Facebook pages identified in the Tech Transparency Project report, more than half were created since mid-November and of those, a dozen popped up in the last month. Most pages used descriptors like “coyote,” a commonly used term used for human smugglers, to signal the service being offered. Pages were also sometimes categorized as “travel company” or “product/service.”

The content of each page, though, was similar: selling the journey to the United States. The names of the pages, included “Cruse Seguro,” translated to “Safe Crossing,” as well as “Viajes a Estados Unidos,” translated to “Trips to the United States,” and “Cruse a usa,” translated to “cross to USA.”

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“We prohibit content that either offers or assists with human smuggling. We have removed this content and will continue to do so. We will review this report once we see it and take action against anything that violates our policies,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN.

Facebook’s algorithm may be exacerbating the issue by showing similar pages to users, the group says. “In the related pages, at least a third of the pages we identified, Facebook was serving up to us in the related pages, especially ones on travel. Facebook would recommend other travel pages, but they were smuggling pages,” said Katie Paul, director of the nonprofit Tech Transparency Project. “The algorithm is really creating this amplification.”

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A smuggling incident along the US southern border recently garnered national headlines, when Border Patrol released video of two young Ecuadorian sisters being dropped over a 14-foot-tall border fence in the desert.

“The inhumane way smugglers abuse children while profiting off parents’ desperation is criminal and morally reprehensible,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. “Just this month, a young girl died by drowning, a six-month-old was thrown into the river, and two young children were dropped from a wall and left in the desert alone.”

US Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 172,000 people attempting to cross the US-Mexico border in March, a 71% increase from February. And migrants, fleeing deteriorating conditions in Latin America, are still relying on smugglers.

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The Tech Transparency Project used searches, like “viajar a estados unidos” (travel to the US) and “cruzando a estados Unidos” (“cross to the United States”) to identify Facebook pages advertising services to illegally cross the US-Mexico border.

“We used the platform the same way anyone looking for such services would do,” Paul said.

Posts range from videos, allegedly of migrants crossing the border, to travel arrangements and questions from Facebook users about who the US is expelling and who may be allowed to stay.

“Some of these Facebook pages offer detailed descriptions of the travel arrangements they offer as well as the cost of passage for a single person, typically in the thousands of dollars. Others simply post cryptic images of buses with American flag emojis indicating the United States as the final destination and wait for users to express interest,” the report found.

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The Facebook spokesperson said they have seen instances of the State Department using its platform to share factual information with people considering making the journey to the US.

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Human smugglers around the world have taken advantage of social media before to advertise their services, Paul said, casting a wider net of who they can reach.

“Absolutely this is a tool that (smugglers) utilize but at the same time, these kinds of networks operate through trust,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University who studies migrant smuggling networks, underscoring that word of mouth also plays a role.

“They make use of these websites to advertise their products … It’s just an additional tool that these networks operate through trust,” she told CNN, adding she’s seen an increase in smugglers advertising their services in recent months after a difficult year for Central America.

“The criminal organizations have become more sophisticated in the marketing of their services,” said Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. “They control everything, the routes, complicit authorities.”

The United States has launched a campaign abroad to dissuade migrants from taking the dangerous journey north. The US embassy in Guatemala posted a testimonial on Twitter, showing a woman, whose face is blurred, describing her journey with smugglers. “We walked for five days and five nights. They would only give you canned food and we had run out of water,” she says, in Spanish. “You will suffer a lot on the way.” The video is intended to warn migrants not to put their lives at risk.

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The Biden administration also placed around 28,000 radio ads in Latin America as part of a stepped-up campaign to discourage people from journeying to the US.

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CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this report.

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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