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Should social media platforms be held accountable for the role victims say they play in mass shootings? One court makes a 'historic' decision.

On March 19, a judge made a ruling that social media platforms are responsible for "a steady stream of racist and white supremacist propaganda."

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

A New York judge on March 19 denied the motion to dismiss a lawsuit against several social media platforms that alleged they contributed to the radicalization of Payton Gendron, the gunman who killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2022.

The lawsuit, which was originally filed in May 2023 on behalf of the families of three victims, claimed that the then-18-year-old was motivated by the “psychological vortex” of “social media applications” and “fed a steady stream of racist and white supremacist propaganda.”

It’s not the first time social media has been named as a contributor to mass shootings in the U.S.

📝 What is the social media lawsuit regarding the Buffalo shooting?

In her decision, Erie County Supreme Court Justice Paula Feroleto said she disagreed with the defendants’ claims that the platforms weren’t responsible for what users post. She highlighted that social media platforms were “designed to be addictive to young users” and algorithms “specifically directed Gendron to further platforms or postings” with white supremacist messages.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram; Google, which owns YouTube; and Amazon, the parent company for the livestreaming platform Twitch were named in the lawsuit. Anonymous message board platforms Reddit and 4chan were also said to have contributed to Gendron’s decision-making.

Feroleto said the plaintiffs were allowed to try and prove how the social media platforms were responsible for radicalizing Gendron as well as providing him with the knowledge of what equipment and training he needed to commit a mass shooting.

YouTube and Reddit noted their disagreement with Feroleto’s decision in separate statements, CNN reported. Both said they would be appealing the decision.

Gendron pleaded guilty to charges including murder and terrorism motivated by hate and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in February 2023. The U.S. Department of Justice said in January it will pursue federal charges against Gendron and plans to seek the death penalty.

⚖️ The ruling, which holds social media platforms accountable, is ‘historic’

Matthew P. Bergman, a founding attorney of Social Media Victims Law Center, which represents several of the families affected by the Buffalo shooting, said in a statement, “This historic ruling will for the first time permit victims of racist, antisemitic, anti-immigrant and homophobic violence to hold social media companies accountable for contributing to the epidemic of mass shootings.”

He explained that “social media companies purposefully designed their products to be addictive” and that mass shootings were “foreseeable consequences of their intentional design decisions.”

Read more about Bergman and the Social Media Victims Law Centers’ goals on Business Wire.

📱 Some examples of social media’s relationship to mass shootings

  • Isla Vista, Calif., 2014: The gunman had been uploading YouTube videos outlining his frustration with women and his plans to punish them. According to Elle, several versions of his videos remained on YouTube for years afterward and helped spawn the incel — short for “involuntarily celibate” — movement, which was bubbling up on online forums like Reddit. (Reddit subsequently banned the incel community in 2017, Business Insider reported.)

  • Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 2018. Survivors and witnesses recorded and uploaded videos across various social media platforms, especially X, formerly known as Twitter, and Instagram. Roughly three weeks after the shooting, there were a reported 756 copycat threats at schools nationwide.

  • Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, 2022. The U.S. had experienced 16 mass shootings in the 10 days before the Buffalo and Robb Elementary shootings, which themselves were 10 days apart. Experts claim it was a result of the contagion theory.

“Online platforms like Twitter incite gun violence and spread the manifestos of multiple mass shooters to the public,” a 2022 study wrote. “In general, the spread of mass shooting incidents on social media is very contagious.”

Read more about the relationship between mass shootings and social media from Yahoo News.

🔮 What does this mean for the future of social media platforms?

Experts and lawmakers seem more vocal than ever about social media platforms being held responsible for their role in the growing number of mass shootings, especially in the U.S.

The decision in the Buffalo shooting lawsuit is also happening simultaneously to another regulation discussion in Australia.

The country’s e-Safety Commission warned platforms like YouTube, X, Facebook and Reddit that they may not be doing enough to curtail extremists on their platforms who use features and algorithms to reach larger audiences and potentially recruit help.

Read more about the e-Safety Commission’s anti-terrorism efforts from Reuters.