A $150 billion lawsuit over genocide may force Facebook to confront its dark side

Displayed Rohingya Muslims. Photo (cc) 2017 by Tasnim News Agency.

Previously published at GBH News.

How much of a financial hit would it take to force Mark Zuckerberg sit up and pay attention?

We can be reasonably sure he didn’t lose any sleep when British authorities fined Facebook a paltry $70 million earlier this fall for withholding information about its acquisition of Giphy, an app for creating and hosting animated graphics. Maybe he stirred a bit in July 2019, when the Federal Trade Commission whacked the company with a $5 billion penalty for violating its users’ privacy — a punishment described by the FTC as “the largest ever imposed” in such a case. But then he probably rolled over and caught a few more z’s.

OK, how about $150 billion? Would that do it?

We may be about to find out. Because that’s the price tag lawyers for Rohingya refugees placed on a class-action lawsuit they filed in California last week against Facebook — excuse me, make that Meta Platforms. As reported by Kelvin Chan of The Associated Press, the suit claims that Facebook’s actions in Myanmar stirred up violence in a way that “amounted to a substantial cause, and eventual perpetuation of, the Rohingya genocide.”

Even by Zuckerberg’s standards, $150 billion is a lot of money. Facebook’s revenues in 2020 were just a shade under $86 billion. And though the pricetags lawyers affix on lawsuits should always be taken with several large shakers of salt, the case over genocide in Myanmar could be just the first step in holding Facebook to account for the way its algorithms amplify hate speech and disinformation.

The lawsuit is also one of the first tangible consequences of internal documents provided earlier this fall by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower who went public with information showing that company executives knew its algorithms were wreaking worldwide havoc and did little or nothing about it. In addition to providing some 10,000 documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Haugen told her story anonymously to The Wall Street Journal, and later went public by appearing on “60 Minutes” and testifying before Congress.

The lawsuit is a multi-country effort, as Mathew Ingram reports for the Columbia Journalism Review, and the refugees’ lawyers are attempting to apply Myanmar’s laws in order to get around the United States’ First Amendment, which — with few exceptions — protects even the most loathsome speech.

But given that U.S. law may prevail, the lawyers have also taken the step of claiming that Facebook is a “defective” product. According to Tim De Chant, writing at Ars Technica, that claim appears to be targeted at Section 230, which would normally protect Facebook from legal liability for any content posted by third parties.

Facebook’s algorithms are programmed to show you more and more of the content that you engage with, which leads to the amplification of the sort of violent posts that helped drive genocide against the Rohingyas. A legal argument that would presumably find more favor in the U.S. court system is the algorithmic-driven spread of that content, rather than the content itself.

“While the Rohingya have long been the victims of discrimination and persecution, the scope and violent nature of that persecution changed dramatically in the last decade, turning from human rights abuses and sporadic violence into terrorism and mass genocide,” the lawsuit says. “A key inflection point for that change was the introduction of Facebook into Burma in 2011, which materially contributed to the development and widespread dissemination of anti-Rohingya hate speech, misinformation, and incitement of violence—which together amounted to a substantial cause, and perpetuation of, the eventual Rohingya genocide..”

Facebook has previously admitted that its response to the violence in Myanmar was inadequate. “We weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence,” the company said in 2018.

The lawsuit at least theoretically represents an existential threat to Facebook, and no doubt the company will fight back hard. Still, its initial response emphasized its regrets and steps it has taken over the past several years to lessen the damage. A Meta spokesperson recently issued this statement to multiple news organizations: “We’re appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We’ve built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw [the Burmese armed forces], 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.”

No doubt Zuckerberg and company didn’t knowingly set out to contribute to a human-rights disaster that led to a rampage of rape and murder, with nearly 7,000 Rohingyas killed and 750,000 forced out of the country. Yet this tragedy was the inevitable consequence of the way Facebook works, and of its top executives’ obsession with growth over safety.

As University of Virginia media studies professor and author Siva Vaidhyanathan has put it: “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

Maybe the prospect of being forced to pay for the damage they have done will, at long last, force Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest to do something about it.