Ben Margot / AP
Sister of a federal security officer who was fatally shot while guarding a courthouse during George Floyd-related protests has sued Facebook accusing the technology giant of playing a role in the radicalization of the alleged shooter.
Dave Patrick Underwood, 53, was shot and killed on May 29, 2020 in Oakland, California. Authorities have charged suspected gunman Steven Carrillo with murder. Investigators say Carrillo had ties to the far right, the anti-government boogaloo movement, and that he organized himself with other boogaloo supporters on Facebook.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in California state court against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, Angela Underwood accused Jacob’s Facebook officials of being aware that the social network was being used as a recruitment tool for boogaloo followers, but did not take steps to stop recommend boogaloo-related pages until after Underwood’s death.
The Boogaloo movement is a collection of right-wing extremists who claim they want to overthrow the US government through another civil war. Sometimes dressed in Hawaiian t-shirts, the group is known for being strong arm and is very active online.
Lawyers for Underwood Jacobs claim that Facebook was negligent in designing a product “to promote and engage its users in extremist content,” even though they knew it could lead to potential violence.
“Facebook Inc. knew or could reasonably have foreseen that one or more individuals were likely to become radicalized when joining boogaloo-related groups on Facebook,” the case states.
Federal investigators have said Carrillo, an Air Force sergeant at the time of the shooting, used Facebook to communicate with other boogaloo supporters. The same day that Underwood was killed, Carrillo reportedly wrote to a Facebook group that he planned to go to the George Floyd protests in Oakland to “show them the right targets. Use their anger to burn our fire,” he allegedly wrote . “We have crowds of angry people to use to our advantage,” according to federal prosecutors.
Authorities say Carrillo wrote the protest was “a group opportunity to target specialty superbois,” a phrase that boogaloo supporters use to refer to law enforcement officials because of the “alphabet soup” of federal law enforcement acronyms.
Underwood Jacobs’ case claims that if Facebook changed its algorithm so that it did not recommend and promote boogaloo groups, Carrillo may never have connected online with others in the extremist movement.
“Facebook is responsible for the murder of my brother,” said Underwood Jacobs.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the company will fight the case.
“These allegations are without legal basis,” Stone said.
The lawsuit is the latest attempt to hold a Big Tech company accountable for damage in the real world.
Social media companies largely escape legal liability in such cases thanks to a law known as Section 230, which prevents online platforms from being held accountable for what users post.
There have been rare exceptions in trying to advance lawsuits against technology companies, such as when an appeals court ruled that Snapchat could be sued for a feature that allegedly encouraged reckless driving.
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School who studies Section 230, said Facebook is likely to invoke the legal shield in this case, but he said the case also faces other obstacles.
“There have been a number of lawsuits that have sought to establish that Facebook is responsible for how violent groups and terrorists used their services,” Goldman said. “And the courts have consistently rejected those claims because services like Facebook are not liable for damages caused by people using the service.”
The trial leans heavily on Facebook files, a cache of internal company documents revealed in a series of stories by Wall Street Journal. Among the allegations is that Facebook’s algorithm promotes extremism, inflammatory and divisive content to keep users engaged and advertising dollars rolling in. Facebook researchers have estimated that the social network only captures between 3% and 5% of hate speech on the platform.
In a statement, attorneys for Underwood Jacobs said the Facebook files revealed “Facebook’s active role in shaping the content of its website as well as creating and building groups on the platform – activities that fall outside the behavior protected by Section 230.”
Facebook has reportedly banned nearly 1,000 private groups focusing on “militarized social movements“ like boogaloo.
Facebook has previously acknowledged its role in militia-driven violence. In August 2020, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it made an “operational error” by not removing a page for a militia group urging armed citizens to enter Kenosha, Wisconsin. Two protesters were shot and killed there during demonstrations over the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Same month Facebook said it took down 2,400 pages and more than 14,000 groups on the site started by militia groups.