Update: In response to Vocativ’s investigation of gun sweepstakes on Facebook, the social network has taken down the pages of at least five groups that have been giving away free firearms on the site.
In the process of reporting the story, Vocativ provided Facebook with several examples of active gun giveaways on their platform. On Friday Facebook explained that the sweepstakes violate the company’s advertising guidelines and that the pages in question had been removed. “Facebook strives to create a safe and trusted environment for everyone that uses our service,” the company told Vocativ in a statement.
Now that the U.S. Senate has voted against enacting any new federal gun control measures, Americans are as free as ever to purchase firearms with limited background checks.
They’re also able to score free firearms from an unexpected source: Facebook.
Before 2011, the social network’s promotions guidelines explicitly banned guns as a sweepstakes prize, as well as tobacco, prescription drugs and gasoline. Then in May of that year, Facebook reversed course and lifted the restrictions.
How we Know—The Methodology Behind the Story
- The initial assignment: Locate mercenary activity.
- Identified and researched forums, chat rooms, Facebook groups on related topics.
- Found a discussion regarding how some soldiers only maintain Facebook profiles in order to enroll in "gun giveaways."
- Observed dozens of Facebook groups over several weeks that were involved in such types of giveaways.
- Monitored for giveaway frequency in each group and identified a spike following the Newtown shootings.
Since then—and especially since December’s Newtown massacre—gun giveaways have boomed on the billion-member site. An AR-15, the military-style semi-automatic rifle Adam Lanza used (along with other firearms) in the Sandy Hook shootings, is an especially popular freebie.
A Vocativ analysis found dozens of Facebook groups currently participating in gun sweepstakes. In the contests, dealers award free guns, gun parts and ammunition to individuals who qualify by liking or sharing various pages, using an app or simply clicking through to a website. In April alone, there have already been at least 36 such giveaways, a massive spike from a total of nine in November 2012.
Greg Lastowka, author of Virtual Justice, a book about Internet law, and a professor at Rutgers University, says Facebook’s policy change is likely based upon one factor: money. “Part of it could be that Facebook is now aggressively trying to monetize the platform,” he says. “They want to move away from any kind of restrictions on profits.”
In addition, he says Facebook wants to uphold its value as a rich hub of demographic data. “They want advocacy groups to be using the platform as well, so they can sell advertising against the demographics, and have a business tying all demographics together,” he says.
With a bleak, bullet-riddled cover photo and over 48,000 likes, the Facebook page of AR15News.com, an online weapons publication, has hosted multiple giveaways. Yesterday marked the close of their most recent promotion, for Adams Arms, a gun parts manufacturer. A grand-prize winner claimed a free AR-15 rifle, while two runners up nabbed assorted gun parts. To qualify, users had to complete a series of tasks, including sharing and commenting on a picture of an AR-15, and liking the Facebook pages of AR15news.com and 51 additional sweepstakes sponsors.
“I know there are a lot of pages to like but please don’t complain about it. It took a lot of work to get this done,” the contest rules read. In the next line, the organizer posted these handy tips: “I recommend ‘right clicking’ on the page links below and opening them in another tab so that you can efficiently click ‘Like’ on the pages and not miss any of them.”
The contest’s rules quite clearly state that the winner must be of legal age to own a firearm, and that “all state and local laws apply!”—including not shipping “High Capacity Magazines” to California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey or Washington, D.C.
The lucky winner—a resident of South Carolina, according to his Facebook profile—posted a celebratory comment that read: ”Today was a double win for me. Not only did I win an amazing AR15 rifle, but the senate squished Obama’s nonsense!!!”
AR15News.com assured Vocativ that they were in compliance with all local, state and federal laws, and with Facebook policy.
But the question remains: What does Facebook think about the gun giveaways?
When Vocativ first contacted Facebook, a company spokesman was unaware that the giveaways existed. Alerted to the existing posts, he says the pages are considered ads and thereby do violate the social network’s terms. “Our Ad Guidelines prohibit promotion of the sale of weapons and the Ad Guidelines apply to Pages with commercial content on them,” he says. “Ads may not promote the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives.” He says the company will review the posts, adding, “Most of these should be removed per our terms.” (Facebook has both ad guidelines and promotions guidelines.)
Still, Facebook almost certainly doesn’t bear any legal liability for guns given away on the site. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides platforms immunity from content posted by its users, by removing specific prohibitions on firearms and other items banned under certain laws.
Unless Facebook changes its policy, its highly unlikely the firearms sweepstakes will go away. The promotions have been a boon to business for many of the companies that sponsor them.
Pittsburgh Tactical Firearms, a gun dealer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ran its first Facebook contest in 2011. “Sales went through the roof,” owner Eric Lowry tells Vocativ. “We are a small shop and it was a great way to draw business to the store. It just became super popular.” Lowry says he plans to soon launch his “largest giveaway ever,” which will include a package of guns, body armor and steel targets.