Human technology

Analysis: Rohingya lawsuit against Facebook is a “wake-up call” for social media


  • Rohingya activists say they had no other option for redress
  • Lawsuit is test case for courts to limit immunity for social media companies
  • Recent whistleblower complaints from inside Facebook could strengthen the argument

BANGKOK / LOS ANGELES, December 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A landmark lawsuit by Rohingya refugees against Meta Platforms Inc, formerly known as Facebook, is a “wake-up call” for social media companies and a test case for courts to limit their immunity, human rights and legal experts said.

The $ 150 billion class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in California by law firms Edelson PC and Fields PLLC, argues that Facebook’s failure to control the content and design of its platform contributed to the violence against the Rohingya community.

British lawyers have also submitted a letter of formal notice to Facebook’s London office.

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While analysts are divided on the merits of the case and its chances of success, Rohingya activists said their illegal immigration status in Myanmar left them with few options.

“The Rohingya have lost everything. But in Myanmar there is no law for the Rohingya,” said Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the advocacy group Free Rohingya Coalition, which was abused on Facebook. .

“Facebook has profited from our suffering. The survivors have no choice but to bring a lawsuit against Facebook. It will be an injustice if the 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 trial, a spokesperson for Meta said the company was “appalled at the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.”

“We have assembled a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army), disrupted networks manipulating public debate, and taken action against harmful disinformation to help keep people safe. We have also invested in Burmese language technology to reduce the prevalence of content violation. “

A day after filing the complaint, Meta announced that it would ban several accounts linked to the Burmese military, and said on Wednesday it had built a new artificial intelligence system that can adapt more easily to take faster action on new or evolving types of harmful content. .

It was a sign that the tech giant was shaken, said Debbie Stothard, founder of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), an advocacy group.

“The timing of these announcements shows that the trial is a wake-up call. The trial itself is quite a bold move, but the Rohingya clearly felt there were sufficient grounds,” she said. declared.

“Strategic litigation like this – you never know where it can go. Lately we’ve seen climate change litigation become more mainstream and get wins,” she added.


More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017 after a military crackdown that the refugees said included massacres and rapes. Rights groups have documented killings of civilians and the burning of villages.

The Burmese authorities say they are fighting an insurgency and deny having committed systematic atrocities.

United Nations human rights investigators said in 2018 that the use of Facebook played a key role in the spread of hate speech that fueled 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 like Facebook are protected from liability for user-posted content by a law known as Section 230.

The Rohingya complaint says it seeks to apply Myanmar law to claims if Section 230 is invoked as a defense.

“Based on the precedents, this case should lose,” said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University Law School. “But you have so much dislike of Facebook these days – anything is possible.”

While the tech industry and others have long viewed Section 230 as crucial protection, the law has become increasingly controversial as the power of internet companies has grown.

Earlier this year, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg introduced measures to reform the law, saying companies should only be granted immunity from liability if they follow best practices to remove damaging elements from their businesses. platforms.

The lawsuit is a good test for the courts to limit the number of immunity platforms granted, said David Mindell, a partner at Edelson PC, one of the law firms that brought the action.

“This case is about what happens when a powerful corporation has this unchecked power over the world,” he said.


Goldman and Mindell said recent whistleblower complaints from inside Facebook, who allege the company failed to act even when it knew its platform was being used for human rights abuses, could substantiate the trial, as did the company’s admission that it was “too slow”. to contain abuse.

Lawsuit Underlines “A company can apologize as much as it wants, but in the end people have been hurt,” said David Kaye, a human rights lawyer who chairs the board of directors of the Global Network Initiative, a group that includes Facebook and other tech companies.

“And these stateless people cannot go to the Myanmar government for redress. And if they can’t go to the company, what’s the recourse?

The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the crimes charges. In September, a U.S. federal judge ordered Facebook to release the tapes of accounts linked to anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar that the social media giant had shut down.

The progress of the trial would be closely watched not only by the Rohingya, but also by other groups and individuals who have been harmed by hate speech online, Stothard said.

“Refugees, migrants, LGBT people, other minorities – they have all suffered serious harm,” she said.

“The question to ask is not whether the trial will be successful, but why was it necessary? It is about empowering social media companies,” she said.

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Reporting by Rina Chandran and Avi Asher-Schapiro; Editing by Zoé Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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