LOS ANGELES (CN) – Relatives of victims killed in the San Bernardino, California, terror attack sued Google, Facebook and Twitter, claiming the social media platforms provide material support to terrorists and do little to prevent the groups from using social media to recruit, radicalize and commit terrorist attacks.
According to the family members' complaint filed in federal court on Wednesday, the social media platforms have “knowingly and recklessly” allowed the Islamic State to use the platforms as a tool to spread extremist propaganda and to elicit funds and new recruits.
The lawsuit says the services’ material support allows the Islamic State’s message to flow unfettered across the internet, hastened its rise and inspired terror attacks – including Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook's Dec. 2, 2015, attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino which left 14 people dead and 22 others wounded.
Family members of victims Sierra Clayborn, Tin Nguyen and Nicholas Thalasinos claim Twitter, Google’s YouTube and Facebook have profited from the terror group's postings through targeted advertising.
“Defendants share revenue with ISIS for its content and profit from ISIS postings through advertising revenue,” the 64-page lawsuit states.
The family members say the social media platforms have contributed to the “explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years.” They say the group has exploited social media to establish itself as the “most feared terrorist group in the world,” allowing images of beheadings and other acts to flow through their services, and using social media as a valuable tool in radicalizing individuals and inspiring lone-wolf attacks.
ISIS Twitter accounts have tens of thousands of followers, the lawsuit says, and the group has used Facebook and YouTube in a similar way to disseminate its message.
“Plaintiffs’ claims are based not upon the content of ISIS’ social media postings, but upon defendants’ provision of the infrastructure which provides material support to ISIS,” the lawsuit states. “Furthermore, defendants profit from ISIS by placing ads on ISIS’ postings.”
Google shares revenue earned from advertising with the group, according to the lawsuit, and the platforms “incorporate ISIS’ postings to create unique content by combining the ISIS postings with advertisements selected by defendants based upon ISIS’ postings and the viewer looking at the postings and the advertisements.”
Despite public outcry over the terrorist group's use of social media, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have done little to stop the group from using the services, the family members say.
ISIS-linked accounts typically use a simple naming scheme that makes them easy to find on the internet and according to the families it would not be difficult for the services to sweep up the accounts and delete them.
“Because of the simplistic renaming scheme, defendants could easily detect names that are likely to be replacement accounts and delete them almost as soon as they are created. Yet defendants have failed to implement such a basic account detection methodology,” the complaint states.
According to the family members, the social media sites’ indifference equates to material support of the San Bernardino terrorists. Malik had voiced her support for Islamic jihad through private messages on Facebook, and on the day of the attack at the Inland Regional Center she aligned herself with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
“Farook and Malik were radicalized by ISIS’ use of social media. This was the stated goal of ISIS. Farook and Malik then carried out the deadly attack in San Bernardino. Conducting terrorist acts via radicalized individuals is a stated goal of ISIS,” the family members say in the lawsuit. “But for ISIS’ postings using defendants’ social media platforms, Farook and Malik would not have engaged in their attack on the Inland Regional Center.”
Complaints making similar allegations have faced a tough time in the courts because of protection for online services enshrined in the Communications Decency Act, shielding social media platforms from liability for users’ postings.
Twitter says that its rules bar threats of violence or the promotion of terrorism.
In a transparency report that covered a period from July 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016, the social media service says it suspended 376,890 accounts that had promoted terrorism.
A federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by Tamara Fields, the widow of Lloyd Fields Jr., who was shot and killed by Anward Abu Zaid in a police training center in Amman, Jordan. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack which left five people dead and another wounded. U.S. District Judge William Orrick III ruled in that case that Fields claims against Twitter were barred under the Communications Decency Act.
Facebook expressed sympathy for victims and their relatives but said that it removes content posted by terror groups quickly when it is reported.
"There is no place on Facebook for groups that engage in terrorist activity or for content that expresses support for such activity," Facebook said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Facebook's chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced he was adding 3,000 content reviewers to remove disturbing content after shootings, murders and sexual assaults were streamed through the service. He said the service relies on the millions of reports it receives every week to remove objectionable content.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The families seek damages, fees and costs as well as a court order that declares that the platforms violate the Anti-Terrorism Act.
They are represented by Keith Altman of Excolco Law of Southfield, Michigan, and Burbank, California-based attorney Theida Salazar.
Altman filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of three relatives of people killed by Omar Mateen, who attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando nearly a year ago.
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