CRIME
The week of July 3, 2016

How grassroots activists are forcing gun sales off Facebook

By Peter Rugg

When Facebook announced in late January that it was banning private gun sales on its site and on Instagram, the company stepped into the deep end of a controversy into which it had previously only dipped its digital toes. In 2014, the social media behemoth had prevented minors from seeing pages advertising guns for sale, but banning private sales entirely—while allowing licensed dealers to continue selling—was seen by both critics and supporters as a major change.

“Today’s announcement is another positive step toward our shared goal of stopping illegal online gun sales once and for all,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement to the New York Times. Gun safety advocates similarly lauded the plan, while many gun enthusiasts said they’d take their business to other sites, which they soon did.

In the wake of Facebook’s announcement, though, it remained unclear whether the social network could successfully police the private sale of guns among its members. Rather than actively monitoring for violations of the ban, Facebook said it would rely upon its users to report and transgressions; any transactions conducted via  Facebook Messenger, the contents of which aren’t scanned, would likely be invisible to the company. Soon enough, reports emerged that buying a gun on Facebook was about as easy as it had always been. Administrators could simply set their gun-selling groups’ privacy settings to “secret,” removing them from the prying eyes of any users who might report them.

In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, Mike Monteiro decided to take aim at the remaining Facebook gun sellers. The San Francisco web design director recruited his 57,700 Twitter followers to begin finding and reporting groups and users who had violated the ban. “At this point, I think we’ve gotten more than 1,200 gun sellers suspended from Facebook,” he says. “We’re not trying to get them to change any guidelines, we just want them to enforce the guidelines they have now.”

“At this point, I think we’ve gotten more than 1,200 gun sellers suspended from Facebook.”

He’s complained that even after groups have been reported, Facebook’s enforcement of its own rules has been inconsistent. “Yesterday I was told 9 groups with ‘gun sales’ in the name were within guidelines,” he tweeted. He also tweeted that “Somehow TEXAS GUN SALES doesn’t violate @facebook’s ban on gun sales,” to which another user responded, “after reporting 5 or 6 groups, I have no idea how they decide.”

More frustrating than this inconsistency may be a report that one of Facebook’s own has been working hard on behalf of groups that actually have been banned. According to Forbes, Chuck Rossi, a director of engineering and an avowed gun enthusiast, heads a secret Facebook group for administrators of gun enthusiast pages; he’s also helped reinstate pages that have been shut down.

In February Rossi wrote on the group’s page, “I am 100% laser focused on getting your groups back to you so you have a chance to get them to comply with the new policy. It is my sole freaking purpose in life until it is done. I’m dumping extra work on my mangers (sic) and my teams to cover for me while I take on this new role.” He also made clear his feelings about his employer’s decision, writing, “I know this new policy sucks. I personally don’t agree with it and everyone in Facebook is pissed about how it was rolled out.”

Rossi couldn’t be reached for comment by press time. However, a Facebook spokesperson reiterated the social network’s position on gun sales, writing, “The purchase, sale or trade of firearms, ammunition and explosives between private individuals isn’t allowed on Facebook.” It does still allow “firearm shops and online retailers to promote the offline sale of firearms and ammunition on Facebook as long as all applicable laws and regulations are followed.” And finally, “Facebook relies on the community of 1.6 billion people on Facebook to report anything—posts, photos, videos—that violate our terms, including our policies on firearms. Given the volume of content shared each day, we believe this is an efficient way to identify content for review.”

Monteiro is perplexed at Rossi’s seemingly behind-the-scenes pull at Facebook. “He seems to have made it his life goal to make it so that every group kicked off gets reinstituted,” he says. “It seems very odd to me to have someone working against his own organization like that.”

Roughly two weeks into the campaign to pull every gun seller off the social network, Monteiro says he’s had his life threatened, his own account has been flagged, and he’s even been signed up for every Department of Defense email list. (“That last one at least was original,” he says.) As word of his project spread, thanks in part to stories by Engadget and Mother Jones, a Twitter account called Anti-Gunner Leaks appeared and posted a link to a collection of screenshots containing the names of people who’d reported Facebook groups for selling guns. The same account appears to have started the #ReportGate hashtag, aimed at drawing negative attention to the project.

But Monteiro’s Twitter feed continues to fill the screen grabs announcing successfully shuttered gun sales pages. About half of those belong to John Sibley, a 41-year-old Bronx man. “I have no idea if he has a job, or how he does it,” Monteiro says. “I don’t how he has the time.”

Sibley, who explained his methods in a Medium post, says spare time is the least essential part of the process. It’s a simple two-step process, easier than tapping through a round of Candy Crush: just search for gun-selling groups using keywords like “AR-15” and “buy, sell, trade,” then report the group. “I do it in line at the grocery store or if I’m waiting on the subway,” Sibley says. “If you do more than five at a time you’re asking for trouble. Just do five, wait 5 minutes, then report five more. Get into a rhythm.”

Sibley, who declined to say what he did for a living, did describe himself as a “reformed gun owner” who had a concealed carry permit as a Connecticut 20-something and packed a Sig Sauer P230 that he’s grateful to have never drawn.

“When I owned guns, you just didn’t see the utter horror that we have now,” he says. “As I age, I’ve sort of rejected violence as a tool. I have no interest in it anymore. I don’t think I’d say that I don’t want anybody to have a gun, but I do know that people exchanging assault weapons in a McDonald’s parking lot without IDs isn’t doing the world any good, and if I can slow that down, it’s worth doing.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman