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Loved ones sue social media companies over Buffalo massacre

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(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — Loved ones of those killed in the 2022 Buffalo grocery store mass shooting filed a wrongful death lawsuit Friday against a number of social media companies alleging they facilitated the teenage killer’s white supremacist radicalization by allowing racist propaganda to fester on their platforms.

The lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in Buffalo also names as defendants a gun dealer and body armor company, as well as the parents of the confessed killer, Payton Gendron.

“Gendron was motivated to commit his heinous crime by racist, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist propaganda fed to him by the social media companies whose products he used,” the lawsuit argues, adding that Gendron was not raised by a racist family, did not live in a radically polarized community and had no personal history of negative interactions with Black people.

The legal action comes just two days before Buffalo residents commemorate the one-year mark since the May 14, 2022, shooting rampage at a Tops store on the city’s predominantly Black east side.

The lawsuit was filed by Buffalo attorney John Elmore on behalf of the loved ones of Heyward Patterson, Katherine “Kat” Massey and Andre Mackniel, three of the 10 Black people killed in the mass shooting. The suit is supported by the Social Media Victims Law Center, an organization that works to hold social media companies legally accountable for the alleged harm it is claimed they inflict on vulnerable users.

“I’m hoping that something will come out of it. Everyday or every few days, all you hear about is a mass shooting,” Massey’s sister, Barbara Massey Mapps, told ABC News of the lawsuit. “You’ve got to start somewhere, in order for them to get the message. These big companies only know one thing, money. So, you’ve got to hurt them. How many people do you want to see dead?”

Biggest names in tech sued

Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are Meta, the parent company of Facebook; the instant messaging app Snapchat; Discord, Reddit; Google, which owns YouTube; and Amazon, which owns Twitch, the site Gendron used to livestream the killing rampage.

The dark website 4chan is also named as a defendant, as well as the Vintage Firearms company and the RMA Armament company.

The lawsuit alleges the social media platforms aided in rapidly spreading Gendron’s hate via copies of his livestream of the shooting across multiple platforms where it became known as the “murder video” and viewed by more than 3 million people.

Gendron used Amazon’s Twitch to livestream the first two minutes of the rampage before it was taken down by the operators of the popular gaming platform, the lawsuit states.

Despite it being taken down, the video was downloaded to 4chan, according to the suit.

“Within 30 minutes of when the link was first posted to 4chan, another 4chan user had downloaded it, uploaded it to a video sharing platform, and posted a link to that other video sharing platform on 4chan,” the lawsuit alleges.

Copies of the horrific video “appeared on Facebook next to advertisements,” the lawsuit contends.

“While Facebook eventually turned off banner advertising for searches related to the Buffalo shooting, the murder video continued to circulate on Facebook and, on information and belief, Facebook’s algorithms continued to recommend it,” the suit alleges.

Discord was named as a defendant because it was where Gendron “chronicled the progress of his plan” for months and where a half-hour before the attack he announced it to several Discord users he invited into a chat room, according to lawsuit.

The suit alleges Gendron became “addicted” in his early teens to Meta’s Instagram, Google’s YouTube and Snapchat, which is owned by a company called Snap Inc.

“Because of the dangerously defective and unreasonably dangerous algorithms powering Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, Gendron quickly became a problematic user of the Social Media Defendants’ products. He accessed his social media accounts multiple times per hour and at all hours of the night,” according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs accuse YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram of directing “Gendron to progressively more extreme and psychologically discordant content.”

“Taking full advantage of the incomplete development of Gendron’s frontal lobe, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat maintained his product engagement by directing him to increasingly extreme and violent content which, upon information and belief, promoted racism, anti-Semitism, and gun violence,” the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit goes on to allege, “Because the Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat algorithms were designed with the singular goal of maximizing Gendron’s product engagement over his psychological, emotional, and ethical well-being, by directing him to sites promoting hate and violence these products were functioning as designed and intended.”

Firearms and body armor dealers

Vintage Firearms, a gun dealer in Endicott, New York, was named as a defendant because it sold Gendron the Bushmaster XM15-E2S he used in the attack.

“As part of his ‘investigation’ of the Bushmaster XM15-E2S at Vintage Firearms, Gendron writes that he ‘learned’ how to modify the weapon so that it would take high-capacity ammunition magazines, the lawsuit alleges.

“After purchasing his murder weapon at Vintage Firearms, Gendron continued to loyally patronize the store, and find camaraderie there,” the suit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges RMA Armament, where the killer purchased his body armor, “knew or should have known permitting Payton Gendron to obtain their product would result in unreasonable danger due to the use of their product.”

Gendron, now 19, pleaded guilty to committing the murders and was sentenced in February to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also became the first person in New York state to face a charge of domestic terrorism motivated by hate, for which he also pleaded guilty.

During his sentencing hearing in February, Gendron, from predominantly white Conklin, New York, a three-hour drive from Buffalo, claimed he was brainwashed by online racist propaganda, saying, “I believed what I read online and acted out of hate.” During the sentencing hearing, one of Gendron’s attorneys, Brian Parker, also said, “The racist hate that motivated this crime was spread through online platforms, and the violence that was made possible was, in part, due to the easy access of assault weapons.”

‘Neither a coincidence nor an accident’

“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 (and corresponding advertising revenue) at the expense of public safety,” the lawsuit alleges.

It adds, “The social media platforms that Gendron encountered are equipped with sophisticated algorithms designed to addict teenage users by taking advantage of their incomplete brain development and maintain their engagement through increasingly extreme and psychologically discordant content.”

The lawsuit mirrors a scathing report released in October by New York Attorney General Letitia James office, alleging several online platforms, including some of those named in the lawsuit, played roles in the Buffalo mass shooting by radicalizing Gendron as he consumed voluminous amounts of racist and violent content, and then by allowing him to broadcast the deadly attack.

The report contended that anonymous, largely unmoderated websites and platforms, like 4chan, allegedly influenced Gendron. It also said livestreaming platforms like Twitch were “weaponized” to publicize and encourage copycat attacks.

The attorney general’s findings came with a call for new legislation to address what she called “a lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability” which she said allows hateful and extremist views to proliferate online.

Section 230

A major hurdle in the lawsuit is expected to be Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects social media platforms and other sites from legal liability that could result from content posted by users.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Gonzalez v. Google LLC, which concerns a lawsuit brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American woman who was killed in an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The lawsuit against Google alleges that its YouTube recommended ISIS recruitment videos to users.

The case centers on whether Section 230 protects online platforms from legal liability when it comes to their recommended content.

If the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Google, it would formally extend legal immunity to the algorithms at the heart of many social media products and search engines; but if the high court rules in favor of the plaintiff, the decision could expose the platforms to a raft of new legal vulnerabilities and produce major changes, legal experts told ABC News.

Twitch issued a statement in the immediate aftermath of the Buffalo attack, saying it stopped the Buffalo gunman’s live feed of the shooting in two minutes.

“We take our responsibility to protect our community extremely seriously, and trust and safety is a major area of investment,” Twitch said in its statement, adding it was continuously examining the Buffalo shooting and “sharing those learnings with our peers in the industry to support a safer internet overall.”

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Meta said that as of Aug. 15, 2022, it identified more than 1,151 “militarized social movements” mostly associated with the far-right conspiracy group QAnon and removed about 4,200 pages, 20,800 groups, 200 events, 59,800 Facebook profiles and 8,900 Instagram accounts.

“We continue to strengthen our enforcement by identifying additional militarized social movements and new terms associated with QAnon,” Meta said. “We’ll continue consulting experts to inform our strategy and will identify and remove content accordingly.”

Discord also released a statement in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying, “We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families, and we will do everything we can to assist law enforcement in the investigation.”

Parents accused of ‘negligent entrustment’

The lawsuit accuses Gendron’s parents of “negligent entrustment,” alleging “Paul Gendron entrusted his son with a rifle, a dangerous instrument that was among the weapons Gendron took to the Tops shooting on May 14, 2022.”

“Paul and Paula Gendron had constructive possession of all the firearms that Gendron kept at their house, whether they purchased the weapons or not,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit notes the police investigation found that in 2021, Gendron posted in an online forum for a high school that he planned to commit “murder/suicide.” He underwent a psychiatric evaluation and New York State Police visited his home after this threat, according to the lawsuit.

“As of June 2021, Paul and Pamela Gendron had actual knowledge that their son was contemplating murder and that he owned multiple guns. Nevertheless, though Gendron lived in his parents’ home and was under their care, custody and control, on information and belief, they did nothing to deny his access to firearms or otherwise remove such dangerous instrumentalities from his possession,” the lawsuit alleges.

Gendron’s parents have not responded to ABC News’ attempts to reach them for comment. After their son pleaded guilty to the state charges in November, Paul and Pamela Gendron released a statement, saying, “Our hearts are broken over the devastation he caused to the innocent victims he killed and wounded, their families, and the African-American community in Buffalo and beyond.”

ABC News has reached out to the defendants for comment.

ABC News’ Max Zahn and Anthony McMahon contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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