Rohingya refugees file billion-dollar law suit against Facebook over hate speech

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Social media giant Facebook is being sued by Rohingya refugees over allegations that the company did not take action against anti-Rohingya hate speech that contributed to violence against them.

Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, is being sued for US$150 billion over allegations that the social media company did not take action against hate speech in its platform.

A US class-action complaint, filed in California on Monday (Dec. 6) by law firms Edelson PC and Fields PLLC, argues that the company’s failures to police content and its platform’s design contributed to real-world violence faced by the Rohingya community.

In a coordinated action, British lawyers also submitted a letter of notice to Facebook’s London office.

Facebook did not respond to a Reuters request for comment about the lawsuit.

The company has said 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, including banning the military from Facebook and Instagram after the Feb 1 coup.

A Myanmar junta spokesman did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment on the legal action against Facebook.

In 2018, UN human rights investigators said the use of Facebook had 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. Almost all were in the main local language, Burmese.

The invective included posts calling the Rohingya or other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists, suggested they be fed to pigs, and urged they be shot or exterminated.

The posts were tolerated in spite of Facebook rules that specifically prohibit attacking ethnic groups with “violent or dehumanising speech” or comparing them to animals.

Facebook has said it is protected from liability over content posted by users by a US Internet law known as Section 230, which holds 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.

Although US courts can apply foreign law to cases where the alleged harms and activity by companies took place in other countries, 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.

Professor at Georgetown University Law Centre Anupam Chander, said that invoking Myanmar law was  not “inappropriate”.

But he predicted that “it’s unlikely to be successful,” saying that “it would be odd for Congress to have foreclosed actions under US law but permitted them to proceed under foreign law”.

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.

Myanmar authorities say they were battling an insurgency and deny carrying out systematic atrocities. (Source: The Straits Times)

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