Facebook sued for $ 150 billion for violence against Rohingya in Myanmar

(CNN) – Rohingya refugees are suing Facebook for its own acknowledged failure to stop the spread of hate speech that has contributed to the violence in Myanmar.

This week, law firms in the United States and the United Kingdom launched a legal campaign against Meta, the parent company of Facebook, over allegations that executives had knowledge of publications, groups and anti-Rohingya accounts on the social network, and have done little to stop them, they said in a statement.

According to a website created for the campaign, the UK legal claim will be on behalf of those who live anywhere outside of the US, while the US claim will represent those who reside in the US.

In total, the lawyers represent “Rohingya people around the world, including those living in refugee camps in Bangladesh,” the website says.

U.S. law firm Edelson said on Twitter that it has filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Meta in California. A copy of the complaint reviewed by CNN Business shows that the plaintiffs are seeking more than $ 150 billion in compensatory damages, in addition to punitive damages to be determined in court.

In a letter to Facebook’s London office on Monday, McCue Jury & Partners said it had coordinated with partners in the United States to launch a “transatlantic legal campaign to seek justice for the Rohingya people.”

“Our clients intend to take legal action against [Facebook] UK to the High Court for its acts and omissions which have contributed to the serious, sometimes fatal, harm suffered by our clients and their families, ”the law firm wrote in the letter, which was posted on the campaign website.

“In either case, plaintiffs will seek to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal,” said Mishcon de Reya, one of the UK law firms handling the UK complaint.

This week’s lawsuits accuse Facebook of using algorithms “which amplified hate speech against the Rohingya on its platform,” as well as failing to “remove specific messages inciting violence or containing speech of hatred directed against the Rohingya “, Mishcon de Reya. wrote in a statement.

Facebook also reportedly “failed to close specific accounts or remove specific groups or pages, which were used to spread hate speech and / or incite violence,” the statement said.

Meta declined to comment on Tuesday.

Josh Davis, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Medicine, said the US lawsuit – which was the first to be filed – would have to pass many hurdles just to get to summary trial or trial, let alone get a favorable decision. Law with expertise in class actions and complex litigation.

For a lawsuit to be certified as a class action by a judge, the plaintiffs involved must have encountered primarily “common” issues. But given the nature of the Myanmar crisis, the experiences of potential group members could vary widely and “it is difficult to imagine any evidence common to the group that would establish that Facebook’s conduct has harmed individual group members.” Davis said.

The legal argument in the case of the United States can also be tricky. He alleges Facebook should face product liability and negligence claims for failing to correct flaws in its platform that complainants say contributed to anti-Rohingya violence, court documents say . In the United States, Facebook would generally be protected from such liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but the prosecution is asking the court to apply Burmese law instead, which it says does not offer any such protections.

Davis said U.S. courts are generally reluctant to deal with such cases. He added that it might be difficult to prove that Facebook’s actions caused damage to the Rohingya.

“From a legal point of view, it will be [a] really difficult [case] to bring, ”Davis said.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which is believed to number around 1 million people. Myanmar does not consider them as citizens, nor as belonging to any of the recognized ethnic groups in the country.

In 2016 and 2017, the military launched a brutal campaign of murder and arson that forced more than 740,000 members of the Rohingya minority to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, sparking a genocide case that was heard by the International Court of Justice.

In 2019, the United Nations said “serious human rights violations” by the military continued in the ethnic states of Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Kachin and Karen. Survivors told of atrocities including gang rapes, massacres, torture and widespread destruction of property at the hands of the military.

A UN commission of inquiry called the violence a “classic example of ethnic cleansing”. In 2018, the US House of Representatives made the same statement, and this year the administration of US President Joe Biden considered whether to make that designation.

The US complaint cites allegations made by Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who recently came forward as a whistleblower about the company’s practices.

Haugen said that “Facebook executives were keenly aware that publications ordering attacks by the Burmese government against the Rohingya Muslim minority were spreading tremendously on Facebook” and that “the issue of the Rohingya targeted on Facebook was well known within the company for years. “, depending on the costume.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a 1,300-word statement in response to Haugen’s claims, which extended far beyond Myanmar. In it, he said that a “false image of the company” was being painted.

“If we don’t care about tackling harmful content, then why would we hire as many dedicated people as any other company in our space, even the biggest ones? He wrote at the time.

But Myanmar has become a case study of the deadly impact hate speech shared on Facebook can have.

In 2018, a senior UN official addressed the crisis in Myanmar, saying it carried “the hallmarks of genocide.” By promoting violence and hatred against the Rohingya population, the UN official said Facebook had “turned into a beast”.

The company later admitted it hadn’t done enough to prevent its platform from being used to fuel bloodshed, and Zuckerberg apologized after an open letter from activists and vowed to step up moderation efforts.

Yet Facebook’s previous confessions won’t necessarily strengthen the arguments made in these new lawsuits. “To say that they should have done more does not mean that they violated anyone’s legal rights or that anyone can establish that what Facebook did caused their harm,” Davis said.

Now lawyers handling the complaints say Facebook has also “failed in policy and practice to invest enough in Burmese or Rohingya-speaking content moderators or local fact-checkers.”

Facebook executives previously said in October that the company had “hired more people with linguistic, national and thematic expertise” in countries like Myanmar over the past two years and added content moderators in 12 new languages This year.

“Adding more language expertise has been a key area for us,” they wrote in a blog post in October.

Facebook’s problems with foreign languages ​​spread to other unstable countries, such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

– Clare Duffy, Helen Regan, Eliza Mackintosh and Rishi Iyengar contributed to this report.

This story first appeared on CNN.com, “Facebook sued for $ 150 billion for violence against Rohingya in Myanmar.”

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