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High court clears Twitter of role in Islamic State attacks

The justices unanimously found the social media giant’s role in allowing the terrorist organization on its platform did not violate the law.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Handing a win to tech giants on Thursday, the Supreme Court said Twitter did not aid and abet the Islamic State group by allowing it to post on its site. 

“Plaintiffs accordingly seek to hold Facebook, Twitter, and Google liable for the terrorist attack that allegedly injured them,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the unanimous court. “We conclude, however, that plaintiffs’ allegations are insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack.” 

Thomas said that while the social giant was accused of aiding in a terrorist attack carried out by the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Turkey, the only conduct Twitter undertook was setting up a site that the group had access to. In this way, Twitter's assistance to ISIS in carrying out these attacks did not reach the high bar set out in the court’s precedents.

“None of those allegations suggest that defendants culpably ‘associate[d themselves] with’ the Reina attack, ‘participate[d] in it as something that [they] wishe[d] to bring about,’ or sought ‘by [their] action to make it succeed,’” the George H.W. Bush appointee wrote. “In part, that is because the only affirmative ‘conduct’ defendants allegedly undertook was creating their platforms and setting up their algorithms to display content relevant to user inputs and user history.” 

The court said Twitter never favored ISIS content but instead disseminated it like anything else on its site. 

“To be sure, it might be that bad actors like ISIS are able to use platforms like defendants’ for illegal — and sometimes terrible — ends,” Thomas wrote. “But the same could be said of cell phones, email, or the internet generally.” 

Congress kicked off a race to pin liability on tech giants for hosting terrorist organizations when it expanded social media companies’ liability under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The case against Twitter is just one of over a dozen using a provision of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that allows U.S. nationals harmed by acts of international terrorism to bring a cause of action for aiding and abetting. 

Brought by the family of Nawras Alassaf, the case before the Supreme Court is an anomaly, with every other suit brought against tech giants failing to make it off the ground. Alassaf was one of 39 people killed by Abdulkadir Masharipov in a 2017 terrorist attack in Istanbul, Turkey. An affiliate of ISIS, Masharipov fired 120 rounds into a nightclub filled with 700 people. 

Alassaf’s family claims Twitter, Google, and Facebook share responsibility for the tragedy for aiding and abetting the attack because their platforms allegedly contributed to Masharipov’s radicalization. Backing up its claims with government and news reports, the Alassaf family said ISIS’s use of Twitter was essential to its terrorist activity. 

After dismissal from a federal judge, the Ninth Circuit revived the case’s aiding and abetting claims under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Twitter then appealed to the Supreme Court. 

When the justices heard arguments in the dispute in February, the justices considered a ruling that would moot a similar disagreement over tech giants' liability under Section 230. 

Twitter claimed the company did everything in its power to prevent bad actors from using its technology to advance their causes. 

“It is unclear what a business that broadly provides generalized services could do to avoid liability for aiding and abetting an act of international terrorism, because Plaintiffs acknowledge that Defendants regularly removed terrorist content from their platforms, and a plaintiff can always allege that a defendant could have done more,” Twitter's attorney Seth Waxman with WilmerHale wrote in the company’s brief. 

The Alassaf family argued Twitter had the resources to prevent ISIS from spreading its message on the platform but just chose not to use them.

Thomas said the issues presented to the court “do not lend themselves to crisp, bright-line distinctions.” The court’s ruling does, however, say aiding and abetting liability can only be found when a party consciously participates in a crime. 

“The focus must remain on assistance to the tort for which plaintiffs seek to impose liability,” Thomas wrote. “When there is a direct nexus between the defendant’s acts and the tort, courts may more easily infer such culpable assistance. But, the more attenuated the nexus, the more courts should demand that plaintiffs show culpable participation through intentional aid that substantially furthered the tort.” 

According to the court, the nexus between the Alassaf family’s claims and Twitter’s actions is far removed. The family claimed Twitter did not do enough to prevent the terrorist attacks, but Thomas said they failed to show the social giant actually assisted ISIS intentionally. 

“Plaintiffs have failed to allege that defendants intentionally provided any substantial aid to the Reina attack or otherwise consciously participated in the Reina attack — much less that defendants so pervasively and systemically assisted ISIS as to render them liable for every ISIS attack,” Thomas wrote. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a concurring opinion, expressing her understanding that the court’s ruling was narrow. She notes that both cases came to the court at the motion to dismiss stage. If other cases came before the justices under different circumstances, Jackson said the ruling could have gone a different direction. 

“Both cases came to this Court at the motion-to-dismiss stage, with no factual record,” the Biden appointee wrote. “And the Court’s view of the facts — including its characterizations of the social-media platforms and algorithms at issue — properly rests on the particular allegations in those complaints. Other cases presenting different allegations and different records may lead to different conclusions.” 

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Civil Rights, Media, Technology

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