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Facebook slapped with an eyepopping $150B lawsuit for spreading hate speech against Rohingya refugees

Lawsuit claims social media giant's algos helped Myanmar military crackdown on the Rohingya

Meta was sued on Tuesday for a whopping $150 billion in a class-action lawsuit for allegedly amplifying hate speech and aiding the Myanmar military in the genocide of the Rohingya people.

The case, led by an anonymous Rohingya refugee living in the US, accuses the entity formerly known as Facebook of inciting hatred and inflicting real harm on the predominantly Muslim group for years. Not only did the social media platform ignore hate speech posts, it's alleged that the service's algorithms actively promoted anti-Rohingya propaganda as hundreds of thousands of people fled from Myanmar to escape persecution.

Facebook has already acknowledged its role in the campaign, which saw an estimated 25,000 people perish and 700,000 forced from the country. The lawsuit also comes after ex-employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents demonstrating how its algorithms prioritized engagement over safety.

"As Facebook has determined through years of study and analysis: hate and toxicity fuel its growth far more effectively than updates about a user's favorite type of latte," court documents [PDF] filed to the Superior Court in California, San Mateo, read.

"Rather than taking what it's learned to change its practices, Facebook made a corporate decision to lean into the hate … Because Facebook's algorithms recommend that susceptible users join extremist groups, where users are conditioned to post even more inflammatory and divisive content, it is naturally open to exploitation by autocratic politicians and regimes."

CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously said the biz removed some "425 Facebook Pages, 17 Facebook Groups, 135 Facebook accounts and 15 Instagram accounts in Myanmar" linked to the military for spreading misinformation and hate speech.

By that point, however, authorities had launched so-called "clearance operations" in 2017 to drive out Rohingya Muslims in the mainly Buddhist country. Some 700,000 refugees left to escape human rights abuses – most of them now live in camps in Bangladesh. Facebook failed to crack down on the extreme content, the lawsuit claims. Although it began operations in Myanmar it failed to hire enough local language speakers to moderate posts adequately.

"Despite having been repeatedly alerted between 2013 and 2017 to the vast quantities of anti-Rohingya hate speech and misinformation on its system, and the violent manifestation of that content against the Rohingya people, Facebook barely reacted and devoted scant resources to addressing the issue," the lawsuit states.

Facebook has since developed a classifier to detect hate speech for the country, and hired 100 native speakers to label a dataset to train the system. But it's not enough, and Rohingya people have already suffered irreparable harm, the lawsuit alleges. The anonymous plaintiff wants the company to cough up $150 billion in damages, and has invited other affected Rohingya refugees to join the case. It is estimated that 10,000 Rohingya refugees live in the US.

We're appalled …

"We're appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar," a Meta spokeperson told The Register in a statement. "We've built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw, 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. This work is guided by feedback from experts, civil society organizations and independent reports, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar's findings and the independent Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned and released in 2018," the spokesperson added.

Another similar effort to sue the social media giant is also underway in the UK. Lawyers from McCue Jury & Partners representing Rohingya refugees across the pond sent a letter [PDF] addressed to the company in London, and said it is planning to "bring proceedings against FB UK in the High Court".

"We are seeking justice for the Rohingya people," Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said in a statement.

"This powerful global company must be held to account for its role in permitting the spread of hateful anti-Rohingya propaganda which directly led to unspeakable violence. Facebook turned away while a genocide was being perpetrated – putting profit before the human rights of the Rohingya people." ®

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