Social Media Sites Sued Over Terrorism

In recent years, questions have been raised about whether social media sites can be sued over what other people post and how the sites are used. Recently, a few cases have attempted to do just that, as Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have faced accusations of fostering terrorism by allowing groups like ISIS to post, fund, and spread their deadly message on their platforms.

In particular, three incidents have recently seen the light of a courtroom. One has already been shut down by a court, but the other two remain to be judged. Either way, it’s an interesting topic that begs certain questions about the right to hold social media outlets liable for the damage others do using their sites.

Twitter and Terrorism

Recently, a case has been filed against the internet giant Twitter, over their supposed assistance to terrorism.

The case was filed on January 8, 2017 by two different plaintiffs.

The first plaintiff was the wife of Alexander Pinczowski, a New York man who died—along with his sister—in the March attacks in Brussels. In the lawsuit, Pinczowski accuses Twitter of aiding and abetting ISIS by acting as the terrorist organization’s communication, recruiting and marketing arm,” according to the New York Post.

The case was filed in the federal New York Southern District Court.

Joining the lawsuit was the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who died in the 2015 Paris attacks. Her parents have already filed suit against Twitter and other social media sites in Twitter’s home state of California. In that lawsuit, the family claims that the social media companies allowed terrorism to spread and even profited from it.

All of the lawsuits accuse the companies of not doing enough to stop terrorists from using their sites to spread their ideology.

“The conduct of Twitter was a direct, foreseeable and proximate cause of the wrongful deaths of Nohemi Gonzalez and Alexander Pinczowski,” the New York lawsuit said.

Specifically, the lawsuit claims that Twitter has violated the Anti-Terrorism Act by playing “a uniquely essential role in the development of ISIS’s image, its success in recruiting members from around the world, and its ability to carry out attacks and intimidate its enemies.”

The lawsuit did not specify damages.

Alexander Pinczowski, and his sister Sascha, were at the Brussels Airport when two bombs were set off by terrorists. They were about to fly to New York to attend a wedding in the US state of Virginia.

Twenty-three-year-old Nohemi Gonzalez was shot dead as she ate at the Parisian restaurant La Belle Equipe. She was one of 130 people who lost their lives when two ISIS gunmen opened fire on November 13, 2015.

Pulse Night Club Shooting

In another lawsuit aimed at the social media giants, the families of three people killed during the attacks on Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub have sued Twitter, Google, and Facebook in a US federal court. The lawsuit accuses the companies of providing “material support” to the gunman, who pledged allegiance to ISIS but was not an official member.

The gunman, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and wounded another 53 in the June attack. It has been called the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The wrongful death lawsuit—filed this past December in a Detroit federal court—was brought by the families of Tevin Crosby, Javier Jorge-Reyes, and Juan Ramon Guerrero. All three were killed during the massacre.

The lawsuit claims that Twitter, YouTube (owned by Google), and Facebook “provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts they use to spread extremist propaganda, raise funds and attract new recruits.”

It went on to claim that the companies provide “material support [through ad revenue, which] has been instrumental to the rise of ISIS and has enabled it to carry out or cause to be carried out, numerous terrorist attacks.”

The lawsuit stated that these popular social media platforms were making it easy for ISIS to spread its message, spread propaganda, attract and train new recruits, celebrate terrorist attacks, and publicize executions.

They claim that without Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, ISIS would not have been able to grow as fast as it did over the last few years, rising to the status as one of the most feared terrorist group in the world.

One Case Already Shut Down

In August of 2016, Judge William H. Orrick of the U.S. District in San Francisco ruled that Twitter cannot be held liable for ISIS rhetoric.

This ruling was brought about as he dismissed a lawsuit brought by Tamara Fields, a Florida woman whose husband died in a terrorist attack on a police training center in Jordan last year.

The judge cited a federal law in his ruling, which protects companies like Twitter from liability for the content that third parties publish on its platform.

This begs the question if the other lawsuits have any chance at all.

Is it legal to sue social media sites?

The New York lawsuit claims that the social media sites provided material support to ISIS that equated to the proximate cause of Gonzalez’s father’s suffering after his daughter’s wrongful death. The lawsuit when on to provide multiple instances of fundraising and publicity campaigns conducted via the social media site.

It’s this detail that things become a little less clear.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act establishes that user-generated content on digital platforms cannot be used in proceedings against the platforms.

Further, the law states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

So at face value, this law protects companies like Twitter and Facebook from being liable for anything other users post on their site. But this newest round of lawsuits claims that it was not just a third party posting on Twitter that was the problem. Instead, the lawsuit claims that the social media companies actually help to generate the content.

The lawsuit brought from the Pulse shooting claims that the companies create unique content (thus becoming the speaker and not just the publisher) by combining ISIS postings with advertisements to target the viewer. It also claims that Twitter profits from and shares in the terrorist group’s postings by generating ad revenue from ISIS’s content.

Shutting Down Accounts

According to one of the lawsuits, ISIS controls an estimated 70,000 Twitter accounts, of which about 79 were considered official ISIS accounts. And although social media platforms are technically protected from liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, some of them have begun to close suspected accounts.

Twitter claims to have suspended 360,000 accounts in the last year. In a statement given in 2016, Twitter said that it is trying to balance between free speech and opposing terrorism.

In a statement from last December, Facebook said there is no place for groups who engage in or support terrorism on their site. In that effort, they remove any and all content that may even be remotely related to terrorism as soon as it’s reported.

“We are committed to providing a service where people feel safe when using FacebookWe sympathize with the victims and their families, Facebook said.

Twitter and Google are yet to directly comment on the newest lawsuits; however, the social media giants have stated plans to share information that would help them pinpoint accounts that should be closed.

Despite their best efforts to remove accounts that are suspected of fostering terrorism, some feel that it’s just not enough. We will just have to wait to see what a court thinks about social media sites’ right to freedom of speech, their protection under the Communications Decency Act, and the status of revenue lending itself to first party content.

Dolman Law Group

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