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Genocide by social media posts: Will Facebook be held accountable?

The U.N. determined in 2018 that Facebook played a “determining role” in violence against the Rohingya, inciting widespread violence and amplifying hateful content through its algorithms.

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REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Illustration
In 1946, Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg.

The International Military Tribunal, comprised of jurists and judges from the World War II Allied nations of France, the U.K., the U.S.  and the Soviet Union, prosecuted 24 leaders for the worst human rights abuses of the war. Julius Streicher was one of them.

Streicher had never been a member of the Nazi Party. He had never killed anyone. He had never worked at concentration camps or rounded up Jews and others for deportation to their deaths.

His crime? He disseminated information. He published and wrote Der Stürmer, a hate-filled weekly tabloid newspaper read by 480,000 people throughout Germany and available in huge public display cases in town squares in cities large and small. Der Stürmer printed invective about Jews and called for their extermination. Streicher had become a multimillionaire through this paper.

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His conviction established a precedent: incitement to commit genocide became a crime under international law.

Fifty years later, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, created by the United Nations, prosecuted the people most responsible for the murders in 1994 of 800,000 innocent Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Three Rwandan men were indicted for incitement to genocide. These three men, like Streicher, didn’t kill anyone.

Two were the founders of Radio Des Milles Collines, which spread anti-Tutsi hate over the air waves, inciting Rwandans to kill their friends, neighbors, co-workers and even family members. The third person was the founder, publisher and editor, like Streicher, of a tabloid that dehumanized and vilified the targeted group.

All three men in the “media trial” were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for incitement. The judges in that trial declared, “Without a firearm, machete, or any physical weapon, you caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.”

In 2010, the internet in Myanmar meant “Facebook.” Facebook was the only connection most people had with the electronic world. But Facebook had entered the Myanmar market woefully understaffed with speakers of the local languages and with few people to monitor the spike in users.

What happened next was genocide by social media posts.

A systematic Facebook campaign was begun to target the Rohingya, Myanmar’s small Muslim population that the U.N. calls “the most persecuted people on earth.” The operatives were members of the Myanmar military. Their anti-Rohingya propaganda incited murders, rapes, and the largest forced human migration in recent history — 750,000 Rohingya fled the army’s violence for safety in neighboring Bangladesh.

The online campaign was carried out by hundreds of military personnel who created troll accounts, news and celebrity pages on Facebook and then flooded them with incendiary comments and posts timed for peak viewership.

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Facebook admitted that it was used to incite “offline violence.” Although the company took down the official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders in August 2018, the breadth and details of the propaganda campaign apparently went undetected.

The U.N. determined in 2018 that Facebook played a “determining role” in violence against the Rohingya, inciting widespread violence and amplifying hateful content through its algorithms.

This is genocide by cell phone, an authoritarian government using a social network against its own people.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Facebook is now on trial in the U.S. and the U.K. Two cases were filed on Dec. 6. The company is being sued in London’s High Court on behalf of Rohingya everywhere in the world outside of America.

The American complaint is on behalf of all Rohingya in the U.S. The case seeks at least $150 billion in compensation for “wrongful death, personal injury, pain and suffering, and loss of property.”

U.S. internet companies are typically shielded from liability for their content. However, this case uses Burmese law for the damages done in Myanmar.

The judges in that media trial in Rwanda said, “The power of the media to create and destroy fundamental human values comes with great responsibility. Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”

Facebook must be held accountable.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide, a human rights organization located at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and an adjunct professor of law.