Facebook has been sued over the role it played in a hate-speech campaign that led to the violent persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar. The plaintiffs are demanding it pay $150 billion in damages.
The social media giant began operating in Myanmar back in 2011. It had been aware "for years" that posts targeting the Rohingya, including those "ordering hits by the Myanmar government," had been "spreading wildly," a class action lawsuit filed on Monday in California said, citing an unnamed Facebook employee-turned whistleblower.
The network's operations in Myanmar "materially contributed to the development and widespread dissemination of anti-Rohingya hate speech" that eventually turned into a "substantial cause" of the Rohingya "genocide," the document, which has since been published online, states.
Some 10,000 Rohingyas were killed during a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017, according to the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders. More than 700,000 people - over half of the Rohingya population in the country - fled to neighboring Bangladesh in the wake of the crackdown, according to the UN. Its officials described Myanmar's actions as "ethnic cleansing" and said a charge of genocide "cannot be ruled out."
The lawsuit states that Facebook was "willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in south-east Asia," and that it had promoted its growth in Myanmar above all else. Even when alerted about hate speech, it had failed to remove offending posts in a timely manner.
The law firm behind the suit, representing some 10,000 Rohingya refugees, is demanding the company pay "compensatory damages in excess of $150 billion, in addition to punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial."
Facebook may soon face a similar lawsuit in the UK. Lawyers representing a group of Rohingyas in the UK and in a refugee camp in Bangladesh sent a letter to its offices on Monday in which they said the persecution campaign had been "fomented by extensive material published on and amplified by the Facebook platform." They are expected to lodge a complaint against the company in the High Court next year.
Facebook admitted in 2018 that it had not done enough to prevent the incitement of hatred, and commissioned an independent report to investigate its own actions. The report concluded that posts published on the social network had been "linked to offline violence."
According to the British lawyers behind Monday's letter, the company had not yet provided "a single penny of compensation," nor had "any other form of reparations or support" been offered to any survivor. Neither Facebook nor its parent company, Meta, have so far commented on the latest developments.