Facebook Sued for Alleged Role in Stoking Violence Against Rohingya in Myanmar

Special to BenarNews
Facebook Sued for Alleged Role in Stoking Violence Against Rohingya in Myanmar The Facebook logo is seen on an advertisement by a local telecom company in Yangon, June 7, 2018.

A lawsuit filed against Facebook seeks a minimum of U.S. $150 billion in damages for the social media company’s alleged role in stoking violence against ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar.

The lawsuit, filed this week on behalf of an Illinois-based Rohingya refugee in the San Mateo County Superior Court, accuses Facebook – now known as Meta – of negligence in allowing the proliferation of hate speech that it says incited violence against the group. The plaintiff seeks class action status on behalf of the more than 10,000 Rohingya refugees now living in the U.S.

According to the lawsuit, discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar escalated to “terrorism and mass genocide” following the introduction of Facebook into the country in 2011.

Facebook “materially contributed to the development and widespread dissemination of anti-Rohingya hate speech, misinformation, and incitement of violence — which together amounted to a substantial cause, and perpetuation of, the eventual Rohingya genocide,” the lawsuit states.

A Meta spokesperson told news site Ars Technica in response to the lawsuit that the company is “appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.” It said it had taken steps to tamp down on misinformation by building a team of Burmese speakers, banning the military, and disrupting “networks manipulating public debate.”

The lawsuit cites testimony from a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower who said that officials at the company “were fully aware that posts ordering hits by the Myanmar government on the minority Muslim Rohingya were spreading wildly on Facebook,” and that “the issue of the Rohingya being targeted on Facebook was well known inside the company for years.”

It alleges that, following confrontations in 2012 on the border of Rakhine state – where the majority of Rohingya live in Myanmar – the military and Buddhist nationalists used Facebook “to organize and spread terror.” Among those, it said, were acts of “ethnic cleansing” over the following years that included the murder, gang rape and torture of tens of thousands of Rohingya.

The violence culminated in a military offensive in Rakhine state in August 2017 that forced some 740,000 Rohingya to cross Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh, where most remain in the largest refugee camp on earth. The crackdown prompted the West African country The Gambia to file a lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Criminal of Justice in late 2019 over what it says was “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya.

The lawsuit noted that Meta used its Internet.org Free Basics program to give people in Myanmar access to the internet – provided they signed up for Facebook. That decision resulted in a “crisis of digital literacy” because it was the first time many of the users in Myanmar had access to online information and they had difficulty differentiating fact from fiction, the lawsuit alleges.

“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 lawsuit said.

To circumvent protections for Facebook and other social media platforms that host user-generated content, the lawsuit hinges on a new legal argument claiming the company created a “defective product” because its ranking algorithm helped to propagate violence against the Rohingya. It also alleges that Facebook was negligent in filtering out content deemed dangerous to the ethnic group.

Seeking justice

Khin Maung, a refugee and founder of the Rohingya Youth Association in the Ukhia sub-district of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, told BenarNews that his group supports the lawsuit.

“When Myanmar authorities conducted genocide on the Rohingya community in Myanmar, Facebook worked in favor of the Myanmar government,” he said.

In Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, prominent Bangladeshi rights activist Nur Khan Liton told BenarNews that Facebook “was largely used to spread hate speech against Rohingya people” in Myanmar.

“They were victimized by Facebook campaigners. Seeking justice at any stage or place is quite valid,” he said.

“It is very important that the verdict come out for the case. I am optimistic about a verdict in favor of the Rohingya community.”

In September, a U.S. magistrate ordered Facebook to release records and deleted content which, he said, helped stoke attacks against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military including the 2017 offensive that unleashed the massive exodus of refugees into Bangladesh.

Zia M. Faruqui, a federal judge in Washington, ruled in favor of The Gambia, declaring that the social media powerhouse, by its own admission, was too slow to respond to concerns about how the online platform played a role in Myanmar’s persecution of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.

This report was produced by the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia, a BenarNews sister entity. Sharif Khiam in Dhaka and Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar contributed to this report.


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