ORLANDO, Fla. (CN) – Sixteen survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting claim in federal court that Facebook, Twitter and Google “aided and abetted” Islamic State terrorists by spreading propaganda that led to the tragedy.
In a complaint filed in the federal court in Orlando, the plaintiffs allege the social media giants violated the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act by allowing ISIS members to recruit and raise money through the platforms.
“Simply put, ISIS uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as tools and weapons of terrorism,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs argue Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, was radicalized by ISIS’ social media postings before he planned the attack that killed 49 people and injured 53 others. According to police reports, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State while talking with hostage negotiators. Mateen also checked Facebook to see if his rampage was trending, according to one U.S. senator, and wrote posts about his extremist views.
Besides allowing ISIS to disseminate calls for violence, the 122-page complaint details dozens of ways terrorists used Twitter to solicit donations and collected ad money from YouTube advertisements placed on their videos.
The plaintiffs, all injured in the 2016 shooting, seek an unspecified amount in damages.
Terrorists’ use of social media has plagued the tech giants for years, especially as the radical groups gained proficiency in editing slick videos featuring executions and praising martyrdom.
But the companies have avoided any real legal challenges, in large part because of a provision in the Communications Decency Act that shields online publishers from postings by users. Judges have also questioned links between terrorists’ social media posts and actual attacks.
Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit ruled Twitter could not be held liable in the deaths of two State Department contractors, because there was no direct relationship between the company and the gunman.
Last week, a federal judge in Michigan dismissed a lawsuit brought by attorney Keith Altman, who represents other Pulse nightclub survivors and families of those killed.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge David Lawson wrote there was no evidence showing ISIS organized the attack or knew anything about Mateen’s activities.
“In this case, the allegations that Mateen viewed some literature and videos produced by ISIS is not sufficient to sustain any inference that either the defendants, or ISIS, or any individual or entity directly associated with ISIS, had any discernible direct involvement in the Orlando attack,” he wrote.
Just days after the judge’s decision, Altman of the Michigan-based law firm Excolo Law, joined with Florida attorney Michael Gibson to file the Orlando lawsuit.
“This is a long-term, extensive campaign on these issues,” Altman told Courthouse News by phone. “Nobody should have to lose a loved one to a terrorist attack through the terrorists’ use of social media.”
Altman said the tech companies are evading responsibility.
“Nothing is ever going to stop terrorist activity on Facebook and Twitter, but there are things that can be substantially done to combat it,” he said.
Altman said the recent talk about amending the Communications Decency Act to fight sex trafficking could change the online platforms’ immunity on terrorists’ use of social media, too.
“We don’t think their conduct is protected by [the Communications Decency Act],” he said. “That day has long since passed.”
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said “We are committed to providing a service where people feel safe when using Facebook.
“There is no place on Facebook for groups that engage in terrorist activity or for content that expresses support for such activity, and we take swift action to remove this content when it’s reported to us. We sympathize with the victims and their families,” the statement said.
Representatives of Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.