Dec 7, 2021 - Technology

Rohingya refugees sue Facebook over Myanmar hate speech

In this photo taken on July 4, 2021, internally displaced Rohingya walk at a market area in the Baw Du Pha IDP Camp in Sittwe in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

Internally displaced Rohingya peoples at a market area in the Baw Du Pha IDP Camp in Myanmar. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Rohingya refugees accused Facebook in a $150 million lawsuit filed Monday of amplifying hate speech against the persecuted minority Muslims in Myanmar via algorithms and failing to take down inflammatory posts.

Why it matters: Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed in Myanmar in what the UN deemed a genocidal campaign. Tens of thousands of others have been displaced, notably following a massacre by Myanmar's military in 2017.

  • Facebook is largely safeguarded under American law over content posted by its users, but the lawsuit filed in San Francisco by Rohingya refugees from the U.S. is seeking for the court to apply Burmese law, which doesn't have such protections.

Details: The suit accuses Facebook of being "willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in Southeast Asia." Lawyers also submitted a letter of notice to Facebook's London office on behalf of Rohingya refugees in the U.K.

  • "The undeniable reality is that Facebook's growth, fueled by hate, division, and misinformation, has left hundreds of thousands of devastated Rohingya lives in its wake," the lawsuit alleges.
  • The suit cited congressional testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, accusing the tech giant of a "failure to learn from its deadly mistakes in Myanmar" in Ethiopia's conflict.

The big picture: A 2018 UN report found Facebook played "a determining role" in disseminating hateful rhetoric in Myanmar.

  • The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Worth noting: Facebook issued a statement in 2018 in response to an independent human rights report it commissioned on the impact of the social media site in Myanmar.

  • "The report concludes that, prior to this year, we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence," the company stated, adding it agreed and pledged to do more.

Yes, but: The lawsuit called this response "underwhelming," saying that it "failed to capture even a scintilla of the gravity" of what Facebook "had done and the role it played."

What to watch: Legal experts note there's no known successful legal precedent for invoking foreign law in a suit against social media firms when protections under Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act can apply, per Reuters.

  • Representatives for Meta, Facebook's parent company, declined to comment on the suit.
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