Could Facebook Be Tried for Human-Rights Abuses?

It’s almost quaint to think that just five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg cheerfully took credit for major pro-democracy movements during Facebook’s IPO launch. Contradicting his previous dismissal of the connection between social media and the Arab Spring, Zuckerberg’s letter to investors spoke not just about the platform’s business potential but also its capacity to increase “direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials, and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.” 2012 Facebook promised a rise of new leaders “who are pro-internet and fight for the rights of their people, including the right to share what they want and the right to access all information that people want to share with them.” Technically, that promise came true, though probably not how Zuckerberg imagined.

Today, the company has to reckon with its role in passively enabling human-rights abuses. While concerns about propaganda and misinformation on the platform reached a fever pitch in places like the United States in the past year, its presence in Myanmar has become the subject of global attention. During the past few months, the company was accused of censoring activists and journalists documenting incidents of and posting about what the State Department has called ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya minority. Because misinformation and propaganda against the Rohingya apparently avoided the community-standards scrutiny afforded activist speech, and because of the News Feed’s tendency to promote already-popular content, posts with misinformation aiming to incite violence have easily gone viral. Experts describe Facebook’s role in the country as the de facto internet, which gives all of their actions and inactions on content even greater influence on politics and public knowledge.


Platform entanglement in human-rights abuses isn’t unique to Facebook. Earlier this year, YouTube deployed a content-moderation algorithm intended to remove terrorist content, inadvertently deleting archives of footage that Syrian activists had been collecting as war-crimes evidence. Some have made similar criticisms of American platforms operating abroad, including Twitter’s compliance with Turkish government requests for censorship, and similar acts by platforms in China.

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