Human rights and legal experts said the landmark lawsuit by Rohingya refugees against Meta Platforms Inc, formerly known as Facebook is a “wake-up call” for social media firms and a test case for courts to limit their immunity.
It was a sign that the tech giant was rattled, said Debbie Stothard, founder of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), an advocacy group.
“The timing of these announcements shows the lawsuit is a wake-up call. The lawsuit itself is quite a bold move, but the Rohingya clearly felt there were sufficient grounds,” she said.
“Strategic litigation like this – you never know where it can go. In recent times we have seen climate-change litigation becoming more commonplace and getting some wins,” she added.
A day after the lawsuit was announced, the social media giant said it would ban several accounts linked to the Myanmar military.
Also on Wednesday, Facebook announced it had built a new artificial intelligence system that can adapt more easily to take action on new or evolving types of harmful content faster.
The US$150 billion class-action complaint, filed in California on Monday by law firms Edelson PC and Fields PLLC, argues that Facebook’s failure to police content and its platform’s design contributed to violence against the Rohingya community.
British lawyers also submitted a letter of notice to Facebook’s London office.
While analysts are split over the merits of the case and its chances of success, Rohingya activists said their status of being deemed illegal immigrants in Myanmar left them with few options.
“The Rohingya lost everything. But in Myanmar, there is no law for the Rohingya,” said Nay San Lwin, co-founder of advocacy group Free Rohingya Coalition, who has faced abuse on Facebook.
“Facebook profited from our suffering. The survivors have no option other than a lawsuit against Facebook. It will be an injustice if Rohingya survivors are not compensated for their losses,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Meta did not respond to a request for comment.
In an earlier statement in response to the lawsuit, a Meta spokesperson said the company was “appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.”
“We’ve built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), 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.”
United Nations human rights investigators said in 2018 that the use of Facebook had played a key role in spreading hate speech that fuelled the violence against the Rohingya.
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.
But in the United States, platforms such as Facebook are protected from liability over content posted by users by a law known as Section 230.
The Rohingya complaint says it seeks to apply Myanmar law to the claims if Section 230 is raised as a defence.
“Based on the precedents, this case should lose,” said Eric Goldman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law. “But you’ve got so much antipathy towards Facebook nowadays – anything is possible.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)