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Landmark $150B lawsuit seeks to hold Facebook accountable for Rohingya genocide

A woman clings to the back of a younger man.
Enlarge / A young Rohingya man carries an older Rohingya woman in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Some 750,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar as a result of the genocide.

Rohingya refugees have filed a lawsuit against Meta, formerly known as Facebook, for its alleged role in the ethnic cleansing currently underway in Myanmar, sometimes known as Burma. The lawsuit says the social media giant is on the hook for “at least $150 billion” for “wrongful death, personal injury, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of property.”

This lawsuit claims that Meta’s Facebook product is defective and that the company acted negligently. The complaint was filed this week in San Mateo County Superior Court, the jurisdiction in which Meta is headquartered, on behalf of a Rohingya refugee living in Illinois. It’s seeking class-action status to encompass all of the more than 10,000 Rohingya refugees who have resettled in the US since 2012. 

The lawsuit is among the first to leverage allegations made by former Facebook employees and whistleblowers, including Frances Haugen, who shared over 10,000 documents with Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Facebook executives were fully aware that posts ordering hits by the Myanmar government on the minority Muslim Rohingya were spreading wildly on Facebook,” one former Facebook employee said in a whistleblower complaint that was cited by the new lawsuit. “The issue of the Rohingya being targeted on Facebook was well known inside the company for years.”

“Textbook example of ethnic cleansing”

The Rohingya have been subjected to state-sanctioned harassment for years. A Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority nation, the Rohingya people have been denied citizenship and falsely accused of being foreign invaders or criminals. In 2017, Myanmar’s military razed villages and carried out a campaign of rape and murder. Nearly 7,000 Rohingya people were killed, Doctors Without Borders estimated, and many of the 750,000 who fled now live in squalid conditions in refugee camps. The UN high commissioner for human rights called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The lawsuit claims that Facebook played a key role in stoking ethnic animus and facilitating the ruling junta’s ethnic cleansing.

“While the Rohingya have long been the victims of discrimination and persecution, the scope and violent nature of that persecution changed dramatically in the last decade, turning from human rights abuses and sporadic violence into terrorism and mass genocide,” the lawsuit says. “A key inflection point for that change was the introduction of Facebook into Burma in 2011, which materially contributed to the development and widespread dissemination of anti-Rohingya hate speech, misinformation, and incitement of violence.”

Facebook used its Free Basics program to give people in Myanmar access to the Internet—provided they signed up for Facebook. Users received Internet niceties like weather and local news without incurring charges on their mobile phone plans, but they essentially lived in Facebook’s walled garden. For many, it was their first exposure to the Internet.

“Crisis of digital literacy”

“This resulted in a ‘crisis of digital literacy,’” the lawsuit says, “leaving these new users blind to the prevalence of false information online. Facebook did nothing, however, to warn its Burmese users about the dangers of misinformation and fake accounts on its system or take any steps to restrict its vicious spread.”

The ruling junta took advantage of that, the lawsuit alleges. “The brutal and repressive Myanmar military regime employed hundreds of people, some posing as celebrities, to operate fake Facebook accounts and to generate hateful and dehumanizing content about the Rohingya,” it says. “So deep was Facebook’s penetration into daily life in Burma and its role in the out-of-control spread of anti-Rohingya content, that Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, described Facebook as having played a ‘determining role’ in the genocide.”

Facebook, the lawsuit claims, was well aware of the problems. “Despite having been repeatedly alerted between 2013 and 2017 to the vast quantities of anti-Rohingya hate speech and misinformation on its system, and the violent manifestation of that content against the Rohingya people, Facebook barely reacted and devoted scant resources to addressing the issue.”

It wasn’t until 2018, after a report from the UN documented the social network’s role in the violence, that the company took action, the lawsuit says. “We agree that we can and should do more,” said Alex Warofka, a product policy manager at Facebook.

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