Should Charges Be Brought Against Facebook for Helping to Incite the Rohingya Genocide?

Media executives were charged with incitement in Rwanda and Nuremberg — what about today?

After the Rwandan genocide, radio executives and presenters were charged with incitement

Following the conclusion by the International Court of Justice that Myanmar is committing genocide, the International Criminal Court continues to collect evidence for trial. The ICC is looking at generals and other high-level persons in the Myanmar government. Yet genocides are not created only by soldiers and politicians. The media plays a critical role in disseminating genocidal content and indoctrinating communities in genocidal thinking. Charges were brought against both the creators and those responsible for the dissemination of genocidal content at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Nuremberg trials. As the Court said of the violence in Rwanda, “Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”

That Facebook played a large role in disseminating genocidal content during the Rohingya genocide is not disputed. The Myanmar military used Facebook with ruthless precision and the intent to destroy the Rohingya people and drive the survivors from Myanmar. The campaign was systematic. Perhaps most critically, Facebook is the internet for many Burmese. Facebook dominates the information space in Myanmar because it was allowed into the country following a thaw with the US in 2011.

But Facebook has always argued they are not a media company. They don’t create content, they merely disseminate it. By so doing, Facebook seeks to distance itself from any responsibility for the genocide. But can it?

Facebook vs. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines — A distinction without a difference?

“Generally speaking, ‘incitement’ means encouraging or persuading another to commit an offense by way of communication, for example by employing broadcasts, publications, drawings, images, or speeches.”

The most recent, successful, high profile case of incitement was brought against Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda. Like Facebook, RTLM was a private company. That RTLM played a large role in inciting the Rwandan genocide is not disputed. There is also a wealth of evidence that Facebook played a large role in disseminating genocidal content in Myanmar, particularly given the fact that it dominates the online information space in that country. In 2018, Facebook commissioned an independent report to study what went wrong with its response to the genocide. This article will not plunge into the debate over the degree to which content spread on Facebook played a role in inciting the genocide. Instead, it will focus on the extent to which Facebook, like RTLM, is a media company.

Facebook would say that unlike RTLM, Facebook did not create the genocidal content in Myanmar, it merely allowed the government to post and spread that content. In fact, far from producing or promoting the content, the company will point to efforts it made to remove genocidal content. It will also point to the fact that the orchestrated nature of the genocidal program in Myanmar was hidden behind sham accounts.

Facebook has argued that the scope of malicious content in Myanmar was difficult to target and control and, furthermore, that it was hard to pin on a single actor or group of actors or tie to a specific program or campaign. In short, Facebook will say that it did not endorse or promote the genocidal content on its site, but rather tried, albeit ineffectually, to remove and limit this content. Has the company successfully differentiated its own actions from those of the Myanmar military?

Facebook is Less Like a Private Company in Myanmar and More Like a Quasi-Government Entity

Stacked against Facebook’s claims of innocence are a few inconvenient facts. One, the platform has a near monopoly on social networking in Myanmar. Being a monopoly arguably brings with it special responsibilities. Facebook arguably controls the only major, private source of information in Myanmar. As a result, it is more like a utility than a private company.

Facebook cannot operate in Myanmar without government permission, creating at least the appearance of a close relationship with the government. Is Facebook really free to push back against government sponsored content, even if it wanted to? Is it really a private company in Myanmar, or is it a quasi-public one, subject to a great deal of government pressure?

Finally, Facebook tends to categorize the Myanmar military as simply one actor among many. This is a mis-categorization. The postings of individual citizens could never possible offset the reach and scope of the government, particularly in a closed society. Put simply, the government of Myanmar, like most governments, has the capacity to flood and overwhelm the Facebook feeds of individual citizens whenever it wants.

Combined together, these facts bring Facebook closer to the status of a quasi-public monopoly news source like RTLM than a truly independent and private social media platform operating in a diverse media environment. If Facebook is the only source of non-government information, Facebook is flooded with government propaganda and the government is pressuring Facebook to allow itself to be used for propaganda, can Facebook truly be categorized as a passive actor in this affair? Isn’t it perhaps more accurate to say that Facebook allowed itself to be used as a tool of the genocide and failed to take adequate precautions against being so used?

Can Facebook Have It Both Ways?

Facebook wants to be treated as a private, independent platform for sharing views, but it also wants to dominate the information space. In order to dominate the information space in a closed country, it will sometimes need to do what that country’s government wants. In some countries, the government has little interest or ability to control Facebook, but in centrally-controlled countries, where the internet is new and Facebook is only of the only private company allowed to operate, the line between Facebook and the government becomes more murky. Once Facebook is categorized like a semi-public utility at the service of the Myanmar military, rather than a private company caught in a bad situation, Facebook’s role in the Rohingya genocide becomes a lot more problematic.

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