‘It is the internet’: Rohingya launch $150bn Facebook lawsuit over genocide hate speech

Victims in UK and US legal action claim social media giant failed to prevent incitement of violence

A Rohingya refugee carries his mother in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh
A Rohingya refugee carries his mother in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh
(Image credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Facebook’s failure to combat hate speech was a key factor in the 2017 genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, a legal action launched today has claimed.

Lawyers for the victims in the UK and US have filed claims worth more than $150bn in compensation in “one the largest group claims for victims of a crime against humanity brought before a domestic court anywhere in the world”, The Times said.

The group alleges that “Facebook’s algorithms promoted and amplified hate speech against the Rohingya”, the paper added, prompting a “campaign of violence” described by one UN human rights chief as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

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‘Hate, division and misinformation’

According to a legal filing submitted to the Northern District Court in San Francisco, Facebook “was willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in southeast Asia”.

“In the end, there was so little for Facebook to gain from its continued presence in Burma [now Myanmar], and the consequences for the Rohingya people could not have been more dire,” the complaint letter adds. “Yet, in the face of this knowledge, and possessing the tools to stop it, it simply kept marching forward.”

Arguing that its clients are the victims of “serious violence, murder and/or other grave human rights abuses”, the lawyers said the campaign of hate against the Rohingya was “fomented by extensive material published on and amplified by the Facebook platform”.

Referencing a 2018 admission by Facebook that it failed to combat hate speech against the Muslim minority group, the lawyers added: “Despite Facebook’s recognition of its culpability and its pronouncements about its role in the world, there has not been a single penny of compensation, nor any other form of reparations or support, offered to any survivor.”

Tensions between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s other ethnic groups, especially the majority Bamar, have been ongoing for decades.

But lawyers for the UK- and US-based victims of the 2017 violence argue that the “algorithms that power the US-based company promote disinformation and extreme thought that translates into real-world violence”, Al Jazeera reported.

“The scope and violent nature of… persecution changed dramatically in the last decade, turning from human rights abuses and sporadic violence into terrorism and mass genocide,” the US claim said.

“A key inflection 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 – which together amounted to a substantial cause, and perpetuation of, the eventual genocide.”

Facebook has not yet responded to a request for comment on the legal action. A spokesperson for Myanmar’s military junta “did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment on the legal action”.

Under the influence

The total number of Rohingya killed during what the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, termed “clearance operations” remains unclear, according to The Guardian. The medical charity Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has placed the figure at over 10,000.

The UK action against Facebook has about 20 claimants, while the US action hopes to “act on behalf of an estimated 10,000 Rohingya in the country”, the paper added.

Around one million Rohingya currently live in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, where the law firms representing the victims – McCue Jury & Partners and Mishcon de Reya – “expect to recruit more claimants”.

In 2018, amid criticism at the levels of hate speech being published on Facebook, founder Mark Zuckerberg told American senators that the company was “hiring dozens more Burmese speakers” to improve its moderation, The Times said.

But “many expressions of hate are still openly posted”, the paper added, with the legal filing citing a number of comments included in a 2018 Reuters article.

“We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews, damn kalars”, wrote one Facebook user in Myanmar, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya. “These non-human kalar dogs, the Bengalis, are killing and destroying our land, our water and our ethnic people”, another added.

The Times’ Asia editor Richard Lloyd Parry said that the legal case shows that while “Facebook is a phenomenon across the world, there are few countries that have fallen more profoundly under its influence than Myanmar”.

Continuing that “for many there, it is the internet”, he added that scrolling through the social media platform even now shows Facebook has “not taken the warnings seriously, or it has not put enough resources into dealing with the problem” of anti-Rohingya hate speech.

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