Social Media Firms Must Face Lawsuits From Buffalo Shooting Survivors: Judge

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Multiple social media companies, including Meta, Reddit, and YouTube, will face lawsuits alleging they enabled a shooter who killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo in 2022, a New York state judge ruled on March 18.

The lawsuits were filed by family members of the victims and survivors of the shooting—nearly all African American—which was perpetrated by 18-year-old Payton Gendron, at a Tops Friendly Markets.

Three other people were left wounded when the shooter, who is white, opened fire in what prosecutors say was a racially motivated attack.

In their lawsuits, plaintiffs had argued the social media companies—which also included Snap; Alphabet; Google; Discord; Amazon.com, and 4Chan Community Support—had “negligently, defectively and harmfully designed ‘products’” that drove Mr. Gendron to posts containing information regarding various theories such as the “white replacement theory,” also known as the “great replacement” theory.

Therefore, the platforms are liable to be sued based on “product liability theories,” the lawsuits stated.

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The posts on the platforms also gave Mr. Gendron knowledge of the equipment and training needed for his mass shooting, the legal filings alleged.

“At this stage of the litigation the Court must base its ruling on the allegations of the complaint and not ‘facts’ asserted by the defendants in their briefs during oral argument,” Erie County Supreme Court Judge Paula Feroleto wrote in her ruling.

The judge said the court has determined the complaint “sufficiently pleads viable causes of action to go forward at this stage of the litigation,” and plaintiffs can therefore try to prove their claims.

Posts on Platforms ‘Indoctrinated’ Shooter, Lawsuit Claims

Judge Feroleto simultaneously rejected the social media companies’ motions to dismiss the lawsuits.

All had argued they merely hosted third-party content across their various sites and networks and were therefore immune from the lawsuit, citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act or the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

“However, plaintiffs contend the defendants’ platforms are more than just message boards,” the judge wrote. “They allege they are sophisticated products designed to be addictive to young users and they specifically directed Gendron to further platforms or postings that indoctrinated him with ‘white replacement theory,’” the judge wrote in her decision.

“It is essentially undisputed that the horrific acts perpetrated by Gendron on May 14, 2022, were motivated by the concept of ‘white replacement theory.’” the judge wrote.

Still, the judge cautioned that at this juncture of the litigation, it is “far too early to rule as a matter of law that the actions, or inaction, of the social media/internet defendants through their platforms require dismissal on proximate cause.”

Lawyer Diandra Debrosse, who is defending some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, called the judge’s decision “a tremendous win for the victims, their families, and for the Buffalo community.”

“The social media Defendants purposely created a plague on our communities: applications meant to create addiction solely to generate profits. Judge Feroleto applied the law to the facts and allowed our legitimate claims to proceed,” Ms. Debrosse said in a statement.
Payton Gendron (C) listens as he is sentenced to life in prison without parole for domestic terrorism motivated by hate and each of the 10 counts of first-degree murder in an Erie County courtroom in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 15, 2023. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News via AP)
Payton Gendron (C) listens as he is sentenced to life in prison without parole for domestic terrorism motivated by hate and each of the 10 counts of first-degree murder in an Erie County courtroom in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 15, 2023. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News via AP)

Social Platforms Disagree with Ruling

In a separate statement to CNN responding to Judge Feroleto’s decision, YouTube spokesperson José Castañeda shared his sympathy with the victims and families of the Buffalo shooting but stressed that the video-sharing platform has invested in technology, teams, and policies to identify and remove extremist content.

“While we disagree with today’s decision and will be appealing, we will continue to work with law enforcement, other platforms, and civil society to share intelligence and best practices,” the statement said.

In a statement to ABC News, a Reddit spokesperson said “Hate and violence have no place on Reddit.”

The spokesperson pointed to the social network’s sitewide policies, which prohibit content that “promotes hate based on identity or vulnerability, as well as content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or group of people.”

“We are constantly evaluating ways to improve our detection and removal of this content, including through enhanced image-hashing systems, and we will continue to review the communities on our platform to ensure they are upholding our rules,” they added.

Reddit also plans to appeal the decision, the spokesperson confirmed.

The Epoch Times has contacted Google and Meta for comment.

Mr. Gendron, who has since apologized for the shooting, was sentenced to life in prison without parole last year after pleading guilty in November 2022 to state murder and domestic terrorism charges.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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