A U.S. federal judge has ordered Facebook to hand over records related to accounts it shut down in 2018 due to their connections to fierce government assaults against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.
The judge’s ruling criticized the U.S. company for refusing to provide the records to countries pursuing a genocide case against Myanmar in an international court, saying that it “would compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.”
Somewhat incongruously given the nature of its business model, Facebook had refused to release the data on the grounds of privacy, claiming that it would violate a U.S. law that bars electronic communication services from disclosing users’ communications. But the judge said the deleted posts, which were made by Myanmar officials, would not be covered under the law, the Journal reported.
U.S. magistrate judge Zia M. Faruqui argued that for the tentacular global platform to take up the cause of privacy rights was “rich with irony,” pointing out that “news sites have entire sections dedicated to Facebook’s sordid history of privacy scandals.”
As a result, he ordered Facebook to release the records of the accounts to the government of Gambia, which is seeking to prosecute Myanmar’s government at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague.
The accounts in question, which included the official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders such as Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led February’s coup, were removed by Facebook in August 2018, a year after Myanmar’s armed forces launched a brutal “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine State in Myanmar’s west.
Allegedly launched in response to scattered attacks by Rohingya militants, the August 2017 assaults saw Myanmar troops raze villages, shoot civilians, rape girls and women, and drive more than 700,000 people over the border into Bangladesh – an offensive that United Nations investigators later said showed “genocidal intent.”
Facebook’s removal of the accounts, which was followed by further deletions in the subsequent months, came amid mounting criticisms of the social network’s role in providing the military and its ultranationalist allies a conduit for hate speech directed against Muslims in general, and the Rohingya in particular.
The previous March, Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, had reported that that social media platforms (i.e. Facebook) had played a “determining role” in the violence against the Rohingya, and had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict” in the country. As the New York Times reported of its own investigation into Facebook’s unwitting role in facilitating the violence, “Myanmar military personnel turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing.”
In late 2018, Facebook admitted that it had failed to prevent its platform from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence,” and that the prevalence of hate speech, disinformation and bad actors on the platform “has had a negative impact on freedom of expression, assembly and association for Myanmar’s most vulnerable users.”
But despite shutting down the accounts for posting hate speech and other violent content, it refused to follow through and release them to the public. Facebook “took the first step by deleting the content that fueled a genocide. Yet it has stumbled at the next step, sharing that content,” Faruqui said in his ruling.
“Locking away the requested content would be throwing away the opportunity to understand how disinformation begat genocide of the Rohingya and would foreclose a reckoning at the ICJ,” he added.
Despite vowing to work with investigators looking into abuses by the military, including against the Rohingya Muslim minority, the head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), another U.N. body, said last year that Facebook was holding material “highly relevant and probative of serious international crimes.” In a statement provided to Reuters today, Facebook said that it has made “voluntary, lawful disclosures” to the IIMM.
Why did Facebook withhold the data? Aside from a corporate secrecy reflex, the only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that Facebook was concerned that the disclosure of the shuttered accounts would reflect badly on its own conduct: in particular, its blithe lack of preparedness for the ways that its technology might be used in the context of Myanmar, as well as its delays in heeding the warnings of human rights groups about the way its platform was being manipulated.
Whether it leads to anything but symbolic redress for the victims of the crisis remains a more open question, given the slow-moving and politically constricted processes of the international criminal justice system. While the Facebook records will no doubt produce some revelations about Facebook’s role in Myanmar and help prosecutors mount their genocide case at the ICJ, Myanmar’s military, having seized power from the country’s civilian government and defended its coup with more lethal violence, can be expected to fight any attempt at accountability.
Whether these reluctant Facebook disclosures open the way to meaningful redress for Myanmar’s Rohingya likely ultimately depends on the balance of political power within Myanmar.