Technology

Rohingya refugees sue Facebook for $150B

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are suing Facebook for $150 billion over allegations that the platform failed to act against anti-Rohingya hate speech that fueled real-world violence against the group in the region, according to a complaint filed Monday. 

Refugees in the U.S. filed the case in California superior court, and Rohingya refugees in Europe filed a similar case in the U.K. 

"Facebook is like a robot programmed with a singular mission: to grow. And 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 complaint states

Although Facebook is largely protected from such allegations in the U.S. under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a liability shield for internet companies over content posted by third parties, attorneys representing the refugees will seek to apply Burmese law to the claims since no such law in Myanmar protects the social media platform. 

The complaint argues that the tendency of Facebook algorithms to recommend "susceptible users join extremist groups" leaves the platform "naturally open to exploitation by autocratic politicians and regimes." 

"As such, Facebook's arrival in Burma provided exactly what the military and its civilian terrorists were praying for," the complaint states. 

A Meta spokesperson said the company is "appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar" and touted the work the company has committed to doing to tackle the hate speech online, but the statement did not directly address the allegations raised in the complaint. 

"We've built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw, disrupted networks manipulating public debate and taken action on harmful misinformation to help keep people safe. We've also invested in Burmese-language technology to reduce the prevalence of violating content. This work is guided by feedback from experts, civil society organizations and independent reports, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar's findings and the independent Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned and released in 2018," the spokesperson said.

The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into whether the Myanmar military committed large-scale crimes against the Rohingya. In 2017, between 600,000 and 1 million Rohingya were forcibly displaced from Myanmar, with most fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. 

The refugees' complaint alleges that Facebook "barely reacted and devoted scant resources" to address the issue despite being "repeatedly alerted between 2013 and 2017 to the vast quantities of anti-Rohingya hate speech and misinformation on its system." 

In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg issued a statement that an independent human rights impact commissioned by Facebook found the company had not been doing "enough" prior to that year to prevent the platform from being used to "foment division and incite offline violence."

The executives said at the time they "agree that we can and should do more." 

But the complaint slams the public sentiment as an "underwhelming response" that "failed to capture'' the gravity of the role the platform played. 

The lawsuit also draws on claims made by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who leaked internal documents from the platform. Haugen testified in October at a Senate hearing that Facebook is "fanning ethnic violence," in areas outside of the U.S. 

"What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying, no one wants to read the end of it," Haugen said. 

The complaint also quotes Haugen's testimony that the tech giant "knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people." 

Meta has sought to downplay the significance of Haugen's testimony and the leaked documents, arguing that the internal research is being mischaracterized.

Updated at 12:13 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7. 

Outbrain