Gretchen Peters did not stumble into the new axis of evil. She is an expert on transnational organized crime. Peters has conducted extensive research on the intersection between transnational organized crime and national security. Over time she realized how transnational organized crime had infiltrated the movement of drugs, money laundering, wildlife and timber trafficking, weapons, crimes against children, and human trafficking around the world.
On October 5, 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security about Facebook’s refusal to effectively remove the toxic and criminal content from its site. Before Frances Haugen, in 2017, the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO) and whistleblower law firm Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto (KKC) filed complaints concerning Facebook from several anonymous whistleblowers with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The original complaint alleges Facebook was aware of illegal activity on its platform and failed to properly police the activity. ACCO and the National Whistleblower Center filed these allegations because Facebook needed to be accountable for criminal activity on its platform.
Peters is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center on Illicit Networks and Organized Crime (CINTOC), a team of experts on transnational crime and corruption. CINTOC is a non-profit that works to help governments, institutions and communities fight crime. Under CINTOC, Peters founded ACCO, a group of academics and investigators who track a wide range of criminal activity on social media. The evidence that ACCO finds is provided to regulators, lawmakers, and the public. The motto for ACCO is: “If it’s illegal offline, it should be illegal to host online.” ACCO liked to say it was a “scrappy startup fighting to counter a serious threat.” However, by partnering with KKC and the National Whistleblower Center, filing with the SEC in 2017, and staffing ACCO with experts “in the crime sectors we track,” ACCO stands to become a formidable force in the fight against the axis of evil, social media platforms.
In October 2019, Peters testified before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumers” regarding wildlife trafficking and criminal activity on social media, Facebook, Instagram, and WeChat. She testified how tech firms enjoy total immunity and have platforms that host drugs, terror groups, wildlife markets, weapon dealers, human traffickers, sexual exploitation of children and harmful and illegal content.
Who is Gretchen Peters, and how did she become one of the first to see the intersection of criminality and social media? How was she able to discern that Facebook had become the point of the sword? When did Peters become aware of the worldwide collaboration of social media and crime? Why did Peters accept the Sisyphean job of taking on the richest, most powerful tech firms in the world?
Peters was born in Boston and moved to Ohio. She felt she had an “ordinary” upbringing, playing sports and going to school. As a child of six or seven, Peters thought she would be a hairstylist, braiding her dolls’ hair but was not very good at cutting hair, which nipped that profession in the bud. Little did Peters know back then that she had a destiny to fulfill. All the processes she subsequently went through prepared her for her critical future role.
Her father worked for a paper company, and her mother was a zoo volunteer, and she opined that “maybe that is where my love of animals comes from. My parents inspired me to work hard, and to believe in myself and they both instilled in me a love of travelling and seeing the world. I was very curious about getting out in the world.”
Peters attended Harvard and, after graduating, realized she did not have a definitive career plan. She knew her friends were “going on to become lawyers, doctors, or get rich on Wall Street.” Although Peters did not have a career in mind, she knew she wanted to write, research and travel. That is how Peters “fell into journalism.” Initially, Peters thought that journalism was what “one did when they could not think of anything else to do.”
Peters worked for the Associated Press, ran a newspaper in Cambodia (The Cambodia Daily), and was a reporter for ABC News. Peters stated that when you’re a journalist, you usually get dropped into a situation. Usually, something “shitty has happened, like an earthquake, tornado, coup d’états, the Taliban taking over, or a plane crash. You have to go and figure out as quickly as you can what is going on and explain it to everybody else.” Peters did not realize she had a valuable skill. She just thought she was an adrenaline junkie. Then she realized that “it takes a certain amount of skill to go in and figure things out and explain it to people who are not there and who might not understand it, and to remain calm.” Peters now understands the incredible training she received in the ’90s, running around “reporting on the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban, driving into Kosovo…driving into places where there was a war going on” was the preparation she needed to take on the biggest social media platform in the world, Facebook.
Peters spent time in Cambodia, Taiwan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.K, Thailand, Mexico, and Egypt. She was nominated for an Emmy and won a Journalism Award for reporting on Pervez Musharraf. Peters acknowledges that her experiences in the ’90s resulted in resiliency and adaptability, which she “really needs” for her current campaign. Peters likes the fact that she is always learning, and “studying crime, researching crime never gets boring, it gets repetitive but never boring.”
Peters returned to the United States, as her husband’s job took them to Denver. Peters published a book, “Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs, and Crime Are Reshaping the Afghan War.” The book was an exposé of the Taliban drug trade funding terrorism. Peters had spent five years tracking the Taliban’s illicit activities. She found that the Taliban earn money from poppy fields in southern Afghanistan and transport it to heroin labs, utilizing money launderers. The Taliban is also involved in running kidnapping rings, extorting mines and timber operations, selling gemstones on the black market, human trafficking, smuggling antiquities, guns, and ammunition. Peters interviewed hundreds of Taliban fighters, smugglers, law enforcement and intelligence agents in five years of researching her book.
Peters decided to get a graduate degree while in Denver and was accepted at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. While there, she was awarded the Sié Chéou-Kang Security and Diplomacy Fellowship. She also received the Association of Former Intelligence Officers Life’s Choices Foundation Scholarship to study transnational organized crime.
Peters wanted to focus on international relations with a concentration on crime. She ran into difficulty because international relations concentrate on state-to-state interactions. Since the 9/11 attacks, the concentration has been on non-state actors, mainly insurgents and terrorists. Peters wanted to combine a Criminal Justice degree with an International Relations degree. Criminal justice programs in the United States are focused domestically. She could not find a program that looked at the issue of organized crime occurring in a transnational space. Peters stated that this is particularly important now when looking at jurisdiction regarding crime in cyberspace. For example, if a Vietnamese triad is financing Mozambique poachers to sneak over the border in South Africa to kill rhinos, then market the rhino horn through Facebook to customers in China and Vietnam, who has jurisdiction?
After her book came out, Peters had the “fascinating experience of working for the military in the intelligence community.” She helped foster understanding of how the Taliban made money from the drug trade and other criminal activity, spending six years in high-level intel positions. She learned that “a lot of people in government are not interested in following the money.”
After being on a safari, Peters became interested in the fact that elephants and rhinos were being poached to death and realized it was “another organized crime issue that was being blamed on poverty.” She wrote a paper concerning the wildlife trade and received money from the State Department and a few other organizations to investigate supply chains moving wildlife from range states in Africa. Peters discovered in 2014-2015 that the wildlife trade had transferred online to groups on Facebook.
A colleague, Kathleen Miles, and Peters founded ACCO and CINTOC together. Peters discovered in their investigations that drug traffickers were smuggling ivory across oceans. It was financed by big transnational crime organizations that were also moving heroin from Afghanistan, the subcontinent of Asia to Europe and the United States. It was all a big mix of these characters that Peters had run into before in the ’90s. She found that at the retail level, the trade in ivory had moved mainly to Facebook and WeChat. For years Peters tried to combat these transnational crime networks, but she had an eureka moment in 2016. She asked, “Why am I playing Whack-O-Mole with these crime networks? We need to go after Facebook.”
Peters knew the Department of Justice (DOJ) would not do anything regarding Facebook because of Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States code enacted as part of the United States Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 generally provided immunity for website platforms with respect to third-party content. Section 230 (C)(1) provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by third-party users.
Peters says, “Facebook is a very convenient place where criminals can set up a free Facebook account, set up a payment system, set up a Facebook group, you can upload pictures of any content, people can comment on it, you can direct them unto Facebook Messenger to negotiate your deal,” and literally the only part of the trade that happens off the platform is sending the illegal contraband to the buyer.
Peters first looked at Facebook concerning the ivory trade. She advised that it has a terrible problem with wildlife trafficking, and “we know you will want to fix it.” Peters was surprised when the response from Facebook executives was that they knew about the problem and would be taking care of it. Peters discovered through other groups that they had gotten the same response from Facebook, “basically a blowoff.”
Other groups were coming forward warning about Facebook and online websites, with Peters receiving media attention. Peters saw a wide variety of organized crime, from drug trafficking to human trafficking, exotic pet trade, “anything you can imagine,” Peters notes, “is on sale somewhere in a Facebook group. Kidneys, babies, child pornography, animal torture, torture videos. Facebook has created all new segments of crime because you can hold a live sex show inside a private Facebook group and charge people to come and watch your show…whether it is raping a child or forcing a person to have sex with an animal, all sorts of truly horrific stuff.”
Peters was invited to talk to the intel community about her research, Stephen M. Kohn of KKC advised her that she should file a complaint against Facebook with the SEC. The first complaint was filed in August 2017, and it was mainly about wildlife trafficking. The first complaint alleges that Facebook, a publicly traded company, is bringing risk to its investors by hosting huge criminal markets because 98% of Facebook’s profits come from advertising. If you search on Facebook for ivory, Percocet, Vicodin, sexual exploitation of children videos or live film, torture videos, even babies put up for sale, anything you could want, results pop up in your newsfeed alongside advertisements for commercial products, like Disney or Coca Cola.
This brings risk to the business firm because commercial companies do not want their ads placed next to criminal or illicit content. There have been times when advertisers have paused their advertising on public media because of public outcry, but it hasn’t lasted because there is nowhere else to go that has as many users as Facebook.
Peters stated that after filing their first complaint with the SEC, they received some media attention. Groups of academics, researchers, and activists looking at other aspects of organized crime on social media came forward. Peters realized that it wasn’t just wildlife crime happening online. She got a “full sense of the scale” after filing the first complaint and additional chapters were added.
Some of the multiple chapters added were about illegal drug trade, COVID-19 fraud, scams, smuggling, wildlife trafficking, terrorism, bestiality, rape, child pornography, every illicit and criminal behavior possible. The activity inside Facebook private and secret groups are the epicenter of organized crime. Peters advised, “It is happening where most people cannot see it. We did further analysis about the algorithmic amplification, the way that Facebook’s recommendation tools help to amplify and grow whole sectors of crime.”
Another filing to the SEC complaint was being prepared for submission when the Facebook files were leaked in the Wall Street Journal by Frances Haugen. Haugen came forward with the astonishing collection of documents from Facebook. Peters noted, “We really applaud her for coming forward, we have several Facebook moderators or insiders who have cooperated with us, and Frances Haugen has come forth with a motherlode of information, and there was also a mention in the Wall Street Journal about toxic and illicit content on Facebook.”
What those studies suggest is that the problem is even bigger than the analysis by CINTOC and ACCO. Peters noted, “We want to applaud her [Haugen] for coming forward with the information. It was very brave of her; we hope more Facebook whistleblowers come forward with information that corroborates what she is saying. We were thrilled that her information corroborates what we have been saying for years.
Peters continued, “What is important to point out is that Facebook has a very formulaic response when they get in trouble. When shareholders ask what percentage of bad stuff, they [Facebook] were able to take down, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and other executives will employ this very, very careful way of saying that 100% of the content their Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools find are removed before anyone mentions it.”
CINTOC was saying that only 25 percent of illicit or criminal conduct was removed, but one of the studies Frances Haugen possessed said that internally Facebook is removing less than one percent of toxic content. Peter notes, “I say Mark Zuckerberg gives himself an A plus for doing an F minus job. Haugen’s documents prove what we have been saying that Facebook’s comments to the SEC, and investors concerning their willingness and capacity to remove illicit and toxic content are deceitful and knowingly deceitful. Facebook knows they are deceiving.”
Doing this current work, Peters said, “You have to be fundamentally optimistic, otherwise it gets too depressing because we are dealing with unbelievably depressing information all the time. You must believe that you will make a difference. Most of the time you do not, and you have to get used to failing, but every now and then we get a punch in.”
Facebook and other social media platforms get their power through algorithms. The platform learns, through the algorithms, what you like, what you want, what interests you, and then the program feeds you more and more of the same content. Peters stated, “For example, if you have used a platform like Pandora or Spotify, it picks up on your music interests, and they will start feeding you songs that are similar. That is one example, the application sees what you click on, and they give you more like it.” What happens on a platform like Facebook, in regard to politics, you eventually get a distortion of politics, constantly being fed one viewpoint.
Facebook’s algorithms learn that people respond and stay online when engaged, and will continue clicking, which is critical to Facebook, because that is how they feed you more ads and that is how they make more money. People stay online longer, and they respond to outrage so the algorithms will feed you more and more outrageous content that will keep you on.
Peters noted that the Haugen testimony in front of Congress “concentrated on the issue of teen self-image, body image and the fact that Instagram, according to their own internal studies, makes teenage girls feel worse about themselves, feel worse about their body, feel worse about their looks. These algorithms will drag little girls down these dark rabbit holes that can even lead to suicide.”
“In the crime space, Peters advises, “say someone comes online and they are interested in buying an illegal pet cheetah, or elephant ivory, or Percocet tablet, they can get sucked down this dark hole where the algorithm will start feeding them content that connects to other areas, and soon you are connected to other dealers. This is not just happening on Facebook, it is also happening on TikTok, Snapchat, all the major media platforms and these algorithms are completely unregulated. They did not exist a decade ago. They are having a very, very deleterious impact on our society in multiple ways. In terms of public safety, in terms of politics, polarization, mental health, and we are finally looking at them. We discovered what they were doing in the crime space and started filing chapters to our complaint, the first major one in 2020.”
Peters advised that the discovery that algorithms were driving illicit activity from human trafficking to child sex abuse material and wildlife trafficking revealed a “breathtakingly bad” situation. They also found a direct correlation between the illicit and criminal acts online to the rise of social media and the invention of smartphones. The fact that everyone carries around a video camera in their pocket means that anyone can create child sex abuse content, upload it very easily through their anonymous social media account and share it with like-minded people in secret Facebook groups and there is no one watching them.
Peters notes, “Any evil thing you can think of is happening somewhere on a Facebook group. 94,000 individuals died of drug related deaths, many kids buying off the web, but it [pills] contain fentanyl or arsenic. This is not like getting a pill at CVS, they are buying something they think is a real prescription pill. A lot of drugs are passing through social media, they are getting them delivered at their house. Child sex abuse has gone up thousands of times, it is now through the roof. Facebook insiders say the real number of cases is higher than what the company is reporting. Facebook is not the only platform with this problem, but they are the biggest.”
Peters advises that the Missing and Exploited Children organization is drowning in content, there were 70 million referrals passed on last year. Crime and illicit activity on the web are “going through the roof.” Multiple species have all gone into extinction risk, in correlation with social media. Romance scams, get rich quick scams, are a huge domestic problem according to the FBI. Incidences of crimes are exploding, and what is being done about social media activity? Peters says she asks herself that a dozen times a day, “why haven’t we done more? Why does every hearing feel like another day of political theatre? I don’t know,” she responds, “I don’t know, at least concerning the crime issue, there is broad bipartisan support that the laws must be reformed. I do think we will get to reform during this Congress, but it has been very frustrating that they have not moved more swiftly to protect the health and safety of the American people.”
Peters acknowledges there are two problems blocking reform. “Our political system is quite divided and sclerotic at the moment so that is one problem. Another one is that the tech industry is big and powerful and rich. Facebook alone spends more money lobbying Congress every single week than our entire annual budget. The tech industry that is now the biggest, now spends more on lobbying. When you combine Google, Amazon and Facebook, those companies are the biggest spenders. They have outpaced Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Banking so we are in an asymmetric battle against a much more well-equipped enemy.”
Peters notes that her organizations are battling tech giants and doing it without money, and she is “giving away half my time, and I have earned less money, and I cannot afford to fix anything.” There is much time and energy being devoted to fighting big tech, but on the other side, a “firehouse of money” from online platforms is making it to Congress. A lot of the energy around the online platforms and their reform, gets tangled up into the question over free speech, misinformation and hate speech. The question is important, but how do you deal with it? Democrats and Republicans are very divided on this issue. Peters notes, “What we have done with our tiny little organization, with our tiny little budget is keep them [Congress] focused on crime and public safety and on those things, Democrats and Republicans see eye to eye.”
Peters feels that she has learned inductively because she worked in several places that are overwhelmed by crime and corruption. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Africa, the Balkans, she has worked in a variety of places where the dominant narrative was unending conflict or unending instability, but the common factor was always powerful criminal actors who benefited from the instability.
In the social media space, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Facebook’s investors are benefiting hugely from the instability their platform is causing. Peters does not know if it is her destiny to fight these online platforms, but she does feel it is her responsibility because she knows she understands it, it is counterintuitive and it took her a long time to figure out and get her head around it. She feels a responsibility to share her knowledge, to share what she has learned.
Peters states, “I am not that flipping smart, sometimes I don’t understand. People often ask me if I am scared to do this work, and the truth is, I am sometimes. Sometimes the work is scary, but I am more scared by what can happen if we do not do anything about this rather than what can happen to me. I am worried about the potential implications of this for our planet, for society, for democracy. I want to stress we started filing on this stuff before Frances Haugen was even hired at Facebook, we were filing on this problem. I testified in Congress about this issue before she was even hired. I am very grateful that she has come forward and I am thrilled that this is finally getting attention. However, it is a little frustrating that we are a small organization, we have never had a lot of money and we still don’t, but we have been screaming from the rooftops about this problem for going on four years now, and it hurts my heart to think of the harm that has been caused in the meantime, and no one has paid attention.”
The SEC knew about illicit and criminal conduct on media platforms before Frances Haugen. Peters’ group brought critical evidence to the SEC that backs up Frances Haugen’s statement. ACCO planted the flag in 2017 with the SEC, and it potentially paves the way for a much larger fine than if the SEC starts at the time Frances Haugen was at Facebook. A critical part of this story is ACCO filing a complaint four years ago against Facebook.
Peters has one of the few groups that was active against Facebook years ago. Since there have been several people and groups talking and actively working on reforms. Facebook is finally getting attention. Peters stated, “I cannot thank Frances Haugen enough for coming forward. I hope more Facebook insiders come forward. Haugen has shown it is relatively easy to pull documents out of Facebook and get them out in the public eye. So, I hope more people come forward the way she has. What is clear to me after having debriefed a lot of Facebook insiders and having read a lot of other Facebook insiders talking about these issues, there is little doubt there are a lot of Hagen’s inside of Facebook who have tried to fix the problem from within and they have been stopped by a few executives at the top, namely Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, who absolutely knew [what was going on].
Peters feels that the U.S. government should seriously look at sanctioning Zuckerberg and Sandberg as individuals, in addition to the firm, because it is quite clear to her, from it repeatedly being said, that Facebook is one of the most “top-down organizations. What Mark Zuckerberg wants, Mark Zuckerberg gets, and Sandberg, as his right hand, has a lot of jurisdiction over these issues. It is not an issue he [Zuckerberg] has taken much interest in, so a lot of the decisions came directly from her [Sandberg]. Hence, the two of them bear a lot of responsibility for where we are today. I really hope the SEC sanctions these two individuals.”
On October 20, 2021, Facebook pushed back on reports, and Haugen’s testimony, as mischaracterizing the results of their internal findings. It certainly looks like just another “blowoff” by Facebook to the public, whereas we know that everything is true but probably worse. As Zuckerberg continues to obstruct, deny, and delay any inquiries into his operation, one cannot help but hope that Peters organizations, the National Whistleblower Center, and KKC will force Zuckerberg in his hubris, and Sandberg in her arrogance, to take responsibility for the horrors and political disruptions that Facebook has intentionally inflicted on society.
Psychological profilers know the best way to predict someone’s future behavior is by looking at their past behavior. It would be remiss if it was not noted that Mark Zuckerberg originally started a website called Facemash, which was used to rate women’s physical attributes at the college he was attending in 2003, Harvard. He was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights, and violating individual privacy by creating the website. The computer services department at Harvard lodged a complaint about his unauthorized use of online Facebook photographs. Another incident had Zuckerberg explaining to a friend that his control of Facebook gave him access to any information he wanted. The friend asks Zuckerberg why people would provide him information, and Zuckerberg responded, “People just submitted it (information), I don’t know why, ‘they trust me’, dumb fucks.”
As recently as 2019, Zuckerberg spoke at Georgetown University. Instead of telling the truth about the origins of Facebook, a dating service, he tried to spin a fanciful tale that painted him in a glowing light, utilizing revisionist history to bestow upon himself a moral compass and benevolence. Facebook, he insisted, was his creation to give “everyone a voice” after the United States invasion of Iraq. Zuckerberg stated that Facebook “pushes society to be better over time.” Now that Zuckerberg has an inordinate amount of power and money, he attempts to create the persona that he craves of a significant hero.
Peters noted that our legal and educational system is unprepared to respond to the types of crimes we see in the world today. That is why, bizarrely, ACCO is using SEC law, it is one of the only laws that ACCO can find that pertains to the issue. With current legislation, Peters believes that the SEC is the regulatory agency with the most power to police Facebook. She feels there should be laws that provide jurisdiction to the DOJ, FCC, or FTC to police crime in cyberspace. ‘Right now,” Peters notes, “because of the way the laws are written the tech platforms must be intentionally supporting crime in the same way Back Page was years ago. Therefore, we are going through the SEC because this is an issue of negligence, not intent.”
I tell Peters that she is a superwoman, and she responds, “To put it in Churchillian terms, I think I have had greatness thrust upon me as a result of places that I have lived and worked, and I now feel responsible to explain how these things work to the rest of the world that is less experienced in them.” I find it revealing that Peters uses the adjective Churchillian because it highlights something interesting about her. Like Churchill, Peters is uncompromising, focused, strong, and just as determined as the wartime Prime Minister. Other adjectives are apt, and people who know her agreed with my assessment: feisty, independent, whip-smart, tough, brave, and tenacious. Peters eschews spiritual guidance in her life, but the trajectory of her life cannot simply be explained by coincidence. Too many things have fallen into place propelled her to where she is today. She is currently occupying a seat on the moral arc ride of the universe, which is bending toward justice. We all should be deeply grateful for that.