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Facebook's parent is being sued by Rohingya refugees over Myanmar violence

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rohingya refugees in the United States are filing a $150 billion class action suit against Facebook. The company, now called Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content. But we cover it like any other company. This suit alleges that Facebook allowed content that promoted violence against the Rohingyas. They were in their home country of Myanmar at the time. And then a military crackdown killed thousands and forced others to flee. The United Nations estimates that 700,000 Rohingya refugees reached Bangladesh. The lawyers for the plaintiffs include Richard Fields of the Fields law firm in Washington, DC. He spoke with Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So Meta, as the company is known, declined to comment on this lawsuit. But they released a statement. Quote, "we're appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar." It went on to say that they have hired Burmese speakers. As a result of these revelations, they've banned the entities linked to the military in Myanmar. I mean, Facebook has admitted that it didn't do enough to stop hate speech against the Rohingya back in 2017 in particular. So what are you looking for with the suit?

RICHARD FIELDS: Well, we have to look beyond 2017 because you can actually graph the violence that was occurring in Myanmar. And what we see is a dramatic spike in 2012, when the usage of Facebook had reached critical mass. And at that point, the violence escalated dramatically. So between 2012 and 2017, Facebook was put on notice over and over again by multiple parties, including some of their own business partners, including NGOs who were working on the ground. They were told what was happening. At least one of these meetings took place in Facebook headquarters. And they made a conscious decision not to stop what was happening on their platform. And I think, you know, we only have to look at the report of the United Nations to see how they had a very material role. And in fact, some commentators have said this genocide would not have happened without Facebook. We know there are other people involved. Of course, the government of Myanmar was involved. But Facebook played a central role.

MARTIN: Just explain who you are representing, how this suit is being brought forward.

FIELDS: So our firm, along with the Edelson firm in Chicago, represent Rohingya refugees who have been coming to the United States as early as the late 1990s. Of course, the violence in Myanmar was occurring before Facebook arrived but dramatically escalated in 2012, when Facebook entered the market through a deal with the Myanmar government and the telecom space. And the Facebook app was included on phones and really became the internet. It became the gateway to all of the internet for anybody living in Myanmar. And so we represent those refugees that have come to this country, almost all of whom have family members in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, in concentration-like camps in Myanmar. And many of them came after 2012, when Facebook began hosting hate speech and disinformation and was being used to target specific villages in Myanmar.

And then we now know from the testimony that we've heard from Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, before the Senate committee that Facebook went beyond simply not acting. But it appears that they have been using algorithms for many years that effectively went beyond distribution and hosting of content to actually engaging in the creation process of content through the way their algorithms amplified and accelerated the spread of the hate speech and the disinformation that ultimately resulted in horrific violence against the Rohingya people.

MARTIN: So this gets to the heart of it all, right? Under U.S. law, under what's known as Section 230, social media companies aren't liable for content that is posted by users on their site. How do you get around that?

FIELDS: Well, first of all, we think there's no immunity for Facebook here because Burmese law applies in the first instance. And there's no immunity statute like 230 in Burma.

MARTIN: But you're filing the suit in the U.S. courts.

FIELDS: Correct. But under international law principles that have been adopted by U.S. courts, we think there's a strong argument that Burma law applies. If we're wrong about that - and we don't think we are - we also believe that 230 doesn't apply because they've gone beyond distribution and hosting. And then we see a shift in the courts on these issues beginning to happen. And we're encouraged by that.

MARTIN: A shift how?

FIELDS: We see the courts beginning to look more carefully at these cases and at the facts.

MARTIN: In terms of accountability for social media companies?

FIELDS: In terms of the breadth and scope of Section 230. And, you know, it's kind of hard to believe that Congress intended for 230 to create an environment on the internet where these kinds of things could take place. It's not just the violence that's occurring around the globe because of what's happening on social media, but there are other things as well. I mean, there are other kinds of problems arising out of social media. And we've seen that with some of the reports around teenagers on Instagram. There are reports of illegal drug sales on social media. And, you know, there's much more.

MARTIN: Richard Fields with the Fields law firm in Washington, D.C. It's one of the firms bringing forward a class action suit on behalf of Rohingya refugees against Facebook, now known as Meta. Mr. Fields, thanks for your time.

FIELDS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "DECADES AND MOMENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.