For years now, reports have emerged of Myanmar’s military using Facebook as a key tool in its ongoing slaughter of the country’s Muslim Rohingya population. Investigations have found the platform’s been openly used to incite vicious rumors and organize planned attacks on the Rohingya, whose lives have been thrown into irreparable chaos, or even ended, as a result. Even today, it’s not hard for users across the region to regularly find their feeds filled with rape and death threats.
Now, some of those Rohingya are fighting back.
An unnamed Rohingya woman in Illinois filed a class-action suit against Facebook’s parent company, Meta, for $150 billion in a California superior court this week, alleging that Facebook’s introduction in the country in 2011 was a “substantial cause, and perpetuation of, the eventual Rohingya genocide.” It further claims that the company did little to curb the grotesque anti-Rohingya posts, groups, and coordinated accounts operating on its platforms, despite being endlessly warned about the problem since 2013.
“At the core of this Complaint is the realization that Facebook was willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in Southeast Asia. Successfully reaching the majority of Burmese people, and continuing to operate there now, has a negligible impact on Facebook’s overall valuation and bottom line,” the suit reads.
“In the end, there was so little for Facebook to gain from its continued presence in Burma, and the consequences for the Rohingya people could not have been more dire,” it continues. “Yet, in the face of this knowledge, and possessing the tools to stop it, it simply kept marching forward.
’The suit is part of a “coordinated legal action” by lawyers in the U.S. and UK to take Facebook to task over its role in the ongoing Myanmar crisis, according to a website set up to announce the suits. The class-action suit in California was filed on behalf of the over 10,000 Rohingya refugees currently living in the States, while the UK claim was filed on behalf of refugees living anywhere else in the world.
In an email to Gizmodo, a Meta spokesperson rejected the company’s portrayal in the suit. “We’re appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar,” she said, going on to list some of the steps the company’s taken in recent years to assure their safety on the platform.
“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.”
Even though Facebook has rolled out those measures more recently, that statement sidesteps how it took the company five years to actually bother taking this regime seriously at all. The fact that it took years of warnings and countless deaths to get Facebook to bother hiring content moderators that speak local languages, or to consider banning obviously violent accounts, is a tragic example of too little too late.
As the suit puts it, “not until 2018—after the damage had been done—did Facebook executives ... meekly admit that Facebook should and could have done more. But at least early on in Facebook’s tenure throughout Myanmar, the company’s efforts were profit-focused first, and people-focused second.
Conversations about Facebook’s place in Myanmar typically refer to how in that country—as is the case in good chunks of the Global South—Facebook isn’t just a social media app the way it is in the States. Over there, Facebook quite literally is the internet: It’s web access, commerce, and human contact all wrapped up in a neat little package. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. Years before activists would raise red flags about the platform’s sloppy handling of violent content, Facebook was busy inking deals with local telecom operators in Southeast Asia, betting on the region’s booming number of internet users to launch the company into massive profits down the line.
For context, a 2019 report from Google claimed that the Southeast Asian digital economy was worth upwards of $100 billion, after tripling in size over the four years prior. By 2025? That number’s expected to triple again, reaching $300 billion.
As Facebook’s then-head of telecoms, Paul Webster, told one Asia-focused advertising publication in 2015, “In this business if you are not one step ahead, you are actually moving backwards.” That approach still holds true today, with the company continuing to aggressively push into building out telecom partnerships—and hell, literal telecom infrastructure—into these “emerging markets.” And while we don’t know what kind of a cut Facebook’s taking from these deals (the company doesn’t publicize that information), we do know that making “Connectivity” and “Facebook” synonymous is a move that’s translated into a surge of those all-important daily active users across those regions.
And to Facebook, a daily active user is a daily active user, even if those daily active users are being targeted by a genocidal regime. In present-day Myanmar, for example, some analysts say there were roughly 22 million Facebook users region-wide—or roughly 40% of the country’s entire population.
This 40%, just like the rest of Facebook’s users around the globe, get targeted with ads across their various feeds, and when those users interact with those ads in some way, the advertisers payout, and Facebook earns its cut.
In other words, Facebook doesn’t care that close to 25% of Myanmar natives live below the poverty line, or that those poverty figures will almost certainly go up, thanks to the global pandemic and an ongoing military coup. First and foremost, it cares about its advertisers. It always has. And those brands—for whatever ghoulish reason—still see profits to be made in Myanmar. Meanwhile, because Facebook is the internet across that country, those advertisers are stuck cutting checks for a company that’s openly admitted to providing platforms for generals the United Nations says should be tried for genocide.
It’s a depressing reality for sure, but also one that’s reaped massive profits for Facebook, so it seems unlikely that any suit—even one made by the refugees whose lives it’s helped ruin—would have any sway. Conceding this case would mean leaving money on the table, and that’s always been the last thing Facebook wants to do.
Update: Added Meta’s response to our request for comment.