Why Rohingya refugees are suing Facebook for $150B in US court

Facebook has long been criticized for not doing enough to protect its platform against hate speech and misinformation. Now, Rohingya refugees are taking the company to court, saying posts on Facebook helped incite religious violence in Myanmar.

Richard Drew/AP
The Facebook logo appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in New York's Times Square, March 29, 2018. Lawyers representing Rohingya refugees filed a $150 billion lawsuit against Facebook’s parent organization, Meta, on Dec. 6, 2021.

Rohingya refugees sued social network powerhouse Facebook for more than $150 billion, accusing it of failing to stop hate speech that incited violence against the Muslim ethnic group by military rulers and their supporters in Myanmar.

Years after coming under scrutiny for contributing to ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar, recently revealed internal Facebook documents show the company still has problems defining and moderating hate speech and misinformation on its platform in the country. The breaches have even been exploited by hostile actors since the Feb. 1 military takeover this year that resulted in human rights abuses across the country.

The Rohingyas’ claims were fortified by the revelations in internal company documents that former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen provided this fall to Congress and U.S. securities regulators. The documents could also serve to buttress potential legal action by other groups around the world harmed by hate speech and misinformation on Facebook’s platform.

Lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit Monday in California against Facebook parent Meta Platforms, saying Facebook’s arrival in Myanmar helped spread hate speech, misinformation, and incitement to violence that “amounted to a substantial cause, and eventual perpetuation of, the Rohingya genocide.”

Lawyers in the United Kingdom have issued notice of their intention to file a similar legal action. Facebook, which was recently renamed Meta, said in a statement Tuesday that it is “appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar” and has built a team of Burmese speakers and invested in technology to take action against harmful misinformation there.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group forced to flee persecution and violence in Myanmar starting in 2017, with an estimated 1 million living in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Some 10,000 have ended up in the United States.

In 2018, United Nations human rights experts investigating attacks against the Rohingya said Facebook had played a role in spreading hate speech.

More than 10,000 Rohingya have been killed and more than 150,000 were subject to physical violence, according to the law firms organizing the cases.

In response to the abuses committed against the Rohingya, Facebook in 2018 banned 20 military-linked individuals and organizations including Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who now leads the army-installed government. From 2018 to 2010, Facebook removed six networks of accounts controlled by the military, which did not acknowledge the backing.

This year, Facebook disabled pages belonging to state media that violated Facebook rules about promoting violence and harm to others. 

The lawsuits say Facebook’s algorithms amplified hate speech against the Rohingya people and the company didn’t spend enough money to hire moderators and fact-checkers who spoke the local languages or understood the political situation.

They also say Facebook failed to shut accounts and pages or remove posts inciting violence or using hate speech directed at the ethnic group.

Facebook arrived in Myanmar in 2011, arranging for millions of residents to access the internet for the first time, according to the lawsuit filed in California Superior Court for San Mateo County. But the lawsuit says the company did little to warn people about the dangers of online misinformation and fake accounts – tactics employed by the military in its campaign against the Rohingya.

Facebook noted in its statement Tuesday that it has banned the military, known as the Tatmadaw, from its platform while also working to disrupt networks trying to manipulate public behavior in the country. On Wednesday, it expanded its ban on postings linked to Myanmar’s military to include all pages, groups, and accounts representing military-controlled businesses.

The lawsuit says Facebook knew that rewarding users for posting dangerous content and allowing fake accounts created by autocrats to flourish would radicalize users.

“The resulting Facebook-fueled anti-Rohingya sentiment motivated and enabled the military government of Myanmar to engage in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” the lawsuit says.

Myanmar was among several places mentioned in documents brought to light by Haugen, and reviewed by The AP, that also detailed content-monitoring lapses in Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, India, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

In the U.S., extremist misinformation and inflammatory content on Facebook egged on supporters of then-President Donald Trump in the days and weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, raising the question of whether injured Capitol and District of Columbia police officers might seek to hold the company responsible. The documents open a window into how Facebook’s conflicting impulses – to nurture its business and protect democracy – clashed in the run-up to the insurrection.

“Across the board, the Facebook papers give civil rights advocates and others a lot of ammunition for their advocacy work,” Washington attorney Peter Romer-Friedman said. He is a lead attorney for a lawsuit filed by the civil rights organization Muslim Advocates in April against Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives, accusing them of falsely claiming that the company removes anti-Muslim rhetoric and other hate speech from the platform. The suit has garnered support from consumer groups and the District of Columbia’s attorney general.

Mr. Romer-Friedman said their case was bolstered “100%” by the internal documents shared by Ms. Haugen. “The world has changed a lot since early September,” he said. The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles based on the documents obtained by Ms. Haugen in September, and she went public in early October in a television interview and testimony to a Senate panel.

Another youth-led group of Rohingya based at a refugee camp in Bangladesh says it is planning to file a separate complaint against Meta in Ireland on Thursday. It’s not a lawsuit but a formal complaint with the watchdog Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calling for the company to provide some remediation programs in the camps.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Marcy Gordon in Washington, Grant Peck in Bangkok, and Matt O’Brien in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.

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