Almost a year after a racially-motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, several victims’ loved ones filed a lawsuit against social media companies that they allege facilitated the shooter’s white supremacist radicalization and gave him a platform to broadcast the violent massacre.
On May 14, 2022, 18-year-old gunman Payton Gendron shot and killed 10 Black shoppers and staff at a supermarket while livestreaming the attack, which was viewed by over three million people. In November, Gendron pleaded guilty to murder, hate crime and domestic terrorism charges.
“Gendron was motivated to commit his heinous crime by racist, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist propaganda fed to him by the social media companies,” the lawsuit says.
The suit was filed in State Supreme Court in Buffalo Friday by attorney John Elmore on behalf of the families of three victims, Heyward Patterson, Katherine Massey and Andre Mackniel. It’s supported by the advocacy groups, Social Media Victims Law Center and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Here’s what to know about the lawsuit:
Allegations against social media platforms
The suit names major tech companies, Meta (Facebook’s parent company), Google, (YouTube’s parent company), Amazon, (Twitch’s parent company), Reddit, Snapchat, Discord and controversial website, 4Chan.
Gendron had livestreamed the attack on Twitch, which was taken down within two minutes, but later uploaded to 4Chan and circulated on Facebook. The lawsuit accuses the online platforms of proliferating Gendron’s hate sentiment by allowing the broadcast recording to spread across platforms quickly.
“While Facebook eventually turned off banner advertising for searches related to the Buffalo shooting, the murder video continued to circulate on Facebook,” the suit also alleges. “Facebook’s algorithms continued to recommend it.”
The suit also alleges that Gendron became addicted to social media as a teenager because of “the dangerously defective and unreasonably dangerous algorithms powering Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat.” It adds, he “quickly became a problematic user” and that he “accessed his social media accounts multiple times per hour and at all hours of the night.”
In its allegations, the suit specifies that social media algorithms are designed to take advantage of teenagers whose brains are still developing and “maintain their engagement through increasingly extreme and psychologically discordant content.”
Others mentioned in the lawsuit
Gendron’s parents, Vintage Firearms, the gun dealer that Gendron bought a weapon from, and RMA Armament, where he purchased body armor before the attack, were also listed as defendants. The lawsuit blames Gendron’s parents of “negligent entrustment” for gifting their son a rifle that was among the weapons Gendron brought to the shooting.
New York Attorney General Letitia James and Governor Kathy Hocul released a report in October, describing similar issues to those proposed in the lawsuit. Following an investigation, the report details how social media platforms contributed to Gendron’s radicalization and disseminated the livestream.
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects social media platforms from legal accountability over content posted by users, and could potentially pose a challenge for the suit. Section 230 is currently facing legislative efforts and Supreme Court cases aiming to restrict companie’s immunity.
“Gendron’s radicalization on social media was neither a coincidence nor an accident; it was the foreseeable consequences of social media companies’ conscious decision to design platforms that maximize user engagement at the expense of public safety,” the lawsuit alleges.
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