Rohingya refugees sue Facebook for $150 billion over Myanmar violence

More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar's Rakhine state in August 2017

Refugees say a Myanmar military crackdown included mass killings and rape. The new lawsuit says online hate on social media platforms helped fuel the violence. Photo: Reuters

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are suing Meta Platforms Inc., formerly known as Facebook, for $150 billion over allegations that the social media company failed to act against anti-Rohingya hate speech that contributed to violence against them.

A US class-action complaint, filed in California on Monday by law firms Edelson PC and Fields PLLC, says that the company's failures to police content and its platform's design contributed to physical violence faced by the Rohingya community.

In a co-ordinated action, British lawyers also submitted a letter of notice to Facebook's London office.

The company has admitted it was "too slow to prevent misinformation and hate" in Myanmar and has said it has since taken steps to crack down on platform abuses in the region. These include banning the military from Facebook and Instagram after Myanmar's February 1 coup.

Facebook has said it is protected from liability over content posted by users by a US internet law known as Section 230, which says that online platforms are not liable for content posted by third parties. The complaint says it seeks to apply Myanmar law to the claims if Section 230 is raised as a defence.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

US courts can apply foreign law to cases where the alleged harms and activity by companies took place in other countries. However, two legal experts interviewed by Reuters said they did not know of a successful precedent for foreign law being invoked in lawsuits against social media companies where Section 230 protections could apply.

Anupam Chander, a professor at Georgetown University Law Centre, said that invoking Burmese law was not "inappropriate." But he predicted that "it's unlikely to be successful".

"It would be odd for Congress to have foreclosed actions under US law but permitted them to proceed under foreign law," he said.

More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar's Rakhine state in August 2017 after a military crackdown that refugees said included mass killings and rape. Rights groups documented killings of civilians and burning of villages.

The Myanmar authorities say they were fighting against an insurgency and deny carrying out systematic atrocities.

In 2018, UN human rights investigators said the use of Facebook played a key role in spreading hate speech that fuelled the violence. A Reuters investigation that year, cited in the US complaint, found more than 1,000 examples of posts, comments and images attacking the Rohingya and other Muslims on Facebook.

The International Criminal Court has opened a case into the accusations of crimes in the region. In September, a US federal judge ordered Facebook to release records of accounts connected to anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar that the social media giant had shut down.

The new class-action lawsuit references claims by Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen – who leaked a cache of internal documents this year – that the company does not police abusive content in countries where such speech is likely to cause the most harm.

The complaint also cites recent media reports, including a Reuters report last month, that Myanmar's military was using fake social media accounts to engage in what is widely referred to in the military as "information combat".

Updated: December 07, 2021, 7:42 AM
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