The sister of a federal security officer who was fatally shot while guarding a courthouse during George Floyd-related protests has sued Facebook, accusing the tech giant of playing a role in radicalizing the alleged shooter.
Dave Patrick Underwood, 53, was shot and killed on May 29, 2020 in Oakland, Calif. Authorities have charged suspected gunman Steven Carrillo with murder. Investigators say Carrillo had ties to the far-right, anti-government boogaloo movement and that he organized with other boogaloo supporters on Facebook.
In a suit filed on Thursday in California state court against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, Angela Underwood Jacobs accused Facebook officials of being aware that the social network was being used as a recruitment tool for boogaloo adherents, yet did not take steps to stop recommending boogaloo-related pages until after Underwood’s death.
The boogaloo movement is a collection of far-right extremists who claim to want to overthrow the U.S. government through a second civil war. Sometimes clad in Hawaiian T-shirts, the group is known to be heavily arm and is highly active online.
Lawyers for Underwood Jacobs claim Facebook was negligent in designing a product “to promote and engage its users in extremist content” despite knowing that it could lead to potential violence.
“Facebook Inc. knew or could have reasonably foreseen that one or more individuals would be likely to become radicalized upon joining boogaloo-related groups on Facebook,” the suit states.
Federal investigators have said Carrillo, an Air Force sergeant at the time of the shooting, used Facebook to communicate with other boogaloo supporters. On the same day as Underwood was killed, Carrillo allegedly posted to a Facebook group that he planned to go to the George Floyd protests in Oakland to “show them the real targets. Use their anger to fuel our fire,” he allegedly wrote. “We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage,” according to federal prosecutors.
Authorities say Carrillo wrote that the protest was “a group opportunity to target the specialty soup bois,” a phrase boogaloo adherents use to refer to law enforcement officials because of the “alphabet soup” of federal law enforcement acronyms.
Underwood Jacobs’ suit contends that if Facebook altered its algorithm so that it was not recommending and promoting boogaloo groups, Carrillo may never had connected online with others in the extremist movement.
“Facebook bears responsibility for the murder of my brother,” Underwood Jacobs said.
Facebook did not have an immediate response to the suit.
The lawsuit is the latest attempt to hold a Big Tech company accountable for real-world harm.
Social media companies largely escape legal responsibility in such cases thanks to a law known as Section 230, which prevents online platforms from being held liable for what users post.
There have been rare exceptions in attempting to advance lawsuits against tech companies, like when an appeals court found that Snapchat could be sued for a feature that allegedly encouraged reckless driving.
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School who studies Section 230, said Facebook will likely invoke the legal shield in this case, but he said the suit faces other hurdles, as well.
“There have been a number of lawsuits trying to establish that Facebook is liable for how violent groups and terrorists used their services,” Goldman said. “And courts have consistently rejected those claims because services like Facebook aren’t responsible for harms caused by people using the service.”
The lawsuit leans heavily on the Facebook Files, a cache of internal company documents exposed in a series of stories by the Wall Street Journal. Among the allegations is that Facebook’s algorithm promotes extremism, inflammatory and divisive content in order to keep users engaged and advertising dollars rolling in. Facebook researchers have estimated that the social network only catches between 3% and 5% of hate speech on the platform.
In a statement, lawyers for Underwood Jacobs said the Facebook Files revealed “Facebook’s active role in shaping the content on its website as well as creating and building groups on the platform – activities that fall outside of the conduct protected by Section 230.”
Facebook has reportedly banned nearly 1,000 private groups focused on “militarized social movements“ like boogaloo.
Facebook has previously acknowledged its role in militia-fueled violence. In August 2020, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it made an “operational mistake” in failing to remove a page for a militia group that called for armed citizens to enter Kenosha, Wisconsin. Two protesters were shot and killed there during demonstrations over the police killing of Jacob Blake.
The same month, Facebook said it took down 2,400 pages and more than 14,000 groups on the site started by militia groups.