July 27, 2023

Buffalo Massacre Families Sue Meta, Reddit, Discord, Alphabet, And Others For Role In Radicalization

The devastating 2022 Buffalo mass shooting has sparked a legal battle to hold social media companies responsible for their platforms’ role in radicalization. 

Two lawsuits, launched by the victims’ loved ones, are seeking accountability from tech giants such as Facebook, Reddit, and Alphabet, alleging that the algorithms and content on these platforms contributed to the racist attack that resulted in the deaths of ten Black people.

How social media shaped the attack

Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white male, was fueled by white supremacist ideology as he carried out a murderous rampage, targeting Black people.

Before the shooting, he went to Tops Friendly Markets supermarket in Buffalo on multiple occasions, outlining his plan in writing on his Discord account about how to murder Black people. 

He also included the weapon and equipment he would use during the attack, marked with phrases and symbols commonly used by white supremacists.

He then live-streamed the massacre on Twitch, along with a personal statement and personal diary, justifying his violence and inspiring future shootings.

The victims’ families have filed two lawsuits to hold social media companies responsible for allowing violent ideologies on their platforms, leading to devastating outcomes.

The lawsuits

This May, the Social Media Victims Law Center, The Law Office of John V. Elmore, P.C., and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed a wrongful death lawsuit in response to Gendron’s racially motivated attack.

The complaint alleges that Gendron was radicalized by the algorithms driving the social platforms he used.

“Gendron was motivated to commit his heinous crime by racist, antisemitic, and white supremacist propaganda fed to him by social media companies,” said Matthew P. Bergman, founding attorney of the Social Media Victims Law Center. The radicalized posts are also said to have provided the training, access to equipment, and expertise to plan and execute the massacre.

The lawsuit names Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook), Snap, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Discord, Reddit, Amazon (which operates Twitch), as well as several arms manufacturers and retailers.

“This horrible crime was neither an accident nor coincidence, but rather the foreseeable result of social media companies’ intentional decision to maximize user engagement over public safety,” said Bergman.

A second lawsuit was filed on July 12, 2023, against the tech giants, claiming they bear responsibility for similarly radicalizing the shooter, as he was fueled by racist conspiracy theories encountered online.

“They were conspirators, even if they don’t want to admit it,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said at a news conference announcing the 171-page lawsuit, which seeks financial damages and changes in how the companies operate.

According to AP News, attorneys may combine the two lawsuits. 

Garnell W. Whitfield Jr, the son of one of the victims, told the New York Times they want to “Hold anybody and everybody, in anything and everything, that had a part in what happened, to hold them accountable.”

What challenges do the lawsuits face?

However, some believe that the lawsuits won’t work following numerous previous cases that haven’t advanced past preliminary stages.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University’s law school and a co-director of its High Tech Law Institute, told The New York Times that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is the primary obstacle.

The act protects online companies from liability for third-party content published on their sites.

“There hasn’t been a case exactly like this one. But suppose you look at some of the other attempts to hold social media companies accountable for acts of terrorism. In that case, they’ve mostly lost,” said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami. 

Featured image credit: Libby March/ The Buffalo News via Associated Press

Sara Keenan

Tech Reporter at POCIT. Following her master's degree in journalism, Sara cultivated a deep passion for writing and driving positive change for Black and Brown individuals across all areas of life. This passion expanded to include the experiences of Black and Brown people in tech thanks to her internship experience as an editorial assistant at a tech startup.