While navigating through AR-15 parts, ammo, and other gun accessories available on Facebook Marketplace, Media Matters researchers found that Facebook’s suggestion algorithm began to recommend listings for gun cases that are seemingly thinly veiled classified ads for fully operational weapons.
Although Meta claims that “any sale of guns or gun parts is a clear violation of our commerce policies,” news outlets have repeatedly demonstrated over several years that Facebook Marketplace has been an illicit marketplace for weapons.
Last week, Media Matters reported that Facebook and Instagram users could easily acquire nearly every part needed to build an AR-15 at home using Meta’s e-commerce platforms Instagram Shopping and Facebook Marketplace.
After receiving several suggestions for discreet firearm listings, we conducted a targeted search and found dozens of listings on Facebook Marketplace that appear to be advertising firearms using vague, coded phrases like advertising "empty" firearm cases for prices that roughly correlate with the price of an actual firearm or are simply place holders. Ads also often include directions to message the seller "for more details on the contents inside.”
Bloomberg opinion columnist Parmy Olson discovered a similar phenomenon after the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde last month. She messaged 10 Facebook users in Texas and Georgia advertising gun cases for sale and “whose listings hinted their title was a pretense: The price was an implausible $1, or they would put the word ‘case’ in quotation marks, or implored buyers to ‘PM me for details’ to find out ‘what’s inside.’” Half of the sellers responded with photos of fully operational semiautomatic rifles and pistols that were apparently the actual product intended for sale.
Instead of cleaning up its listings and enforcing its policy, Meta has aggressively insisted that public reports of gun sales on its platform are overblown -- while reportedly allowing gun sellers and buyers to violate the rule up to 10 times before they are kicked off.
Meta spokesperson Andy Stone recently defended the company’s policies against gun content in a statement to The Washington Post:
“If we identify any serious violations that have the potential for real-world harm, we don’t hesitate to contact law enforcement,” Stone said. “The reality is that nearly 90 percent of people who get a strike for violating our firearms policy accrue less than two because their violations are inadvertent and once we inform them about our policies, they don’t violate them again.”
However, users who advertise the sale of firearms in intentionally vague terms are clearly aware that they are violating policy and are actively attempting to circumvent it. Accounts have long used code words or vague phrasing to avoid content moderation on social platforms, and Meta is certainly aware of this phenomenon by now.