The families of three victims of the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack sued Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Wednesday, claiming the tech giants knew that terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State were using their platforms to spread extremist agendas and didn’t do enough to stop it.
The suit alleges the companies not only violated laws against providing support and resources to terrorists but also negligently inflicted emotional distress and caused wrongful deaths.
“For years, defendants have knowingly and recklessly provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts to use its social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds, and attracting new recruits,” alleges the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California by the families of Sierra Clayborn, Tin Nguyen, and Nicholas Thalasinos. All were killed when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik — a married couple — opened fire at Farook’s company party on Dec. 22, 2015. In total, the pair killed 14 people and wounded another 22.
Shortly after the attack, FBI Director James Comey said that while there’s no evidence that Farook and Malik worked with any larger terrorist organizations, they may have been inspired by such groups’ messages online. “Twitter works as a way to sell books, as a way to promote movies, and it works as a way to crowdsource terrorism — to sell murder,” he told reporters.
And without Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s platform YouTube, the lawsuit claims, “the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible.”
“They believe they are insulated from liability,” Keith Altman, an attorney for the families, told VICE News. Altman has filed several other similar lawsuits against tech companies, including one on behalf of victims killed last June in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.
“They have just operated as if they have no accountability and responsibility,” Altman continued. Because these companies control what advertisements get matched with specific content, such as postings made by the Islamic State, the lawsuit argues that they are no longer just hosting content but actually creating it. “They should not be allowed to simply sit back and count the money while people are dying.”
None of these lawsuits has been resolved yet, though courts have dismissed similar suits in the past. In a motion to dismiss the Pulse lawsuit filed Friday, Twitter, Google, and Facebook point out that online third-party platforms generally cannot be sued for content and comments made by their users, thanks to the Communications Decency Act. The Pulse lawsuit’s “unbounded theory” about that law, the motion argues, “would have staggering consequences, exposing every online platform to possible liability for terrorist violence anywhere in the world, at any time, simply because the terrorists who committed the attack may have been loosely affiliated with some of the platforms’ billions of users.”
While the companies “deeply sympathize with plaintiffs’ losses and are committed to combating the spread of terrorist content online,” the motion reads, they are not liable for these “heinous acts.”
Spokespersons for Facebook and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment on the record.