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Lawsuit alleges that social media companies promoted White supremacist propaganda that led to radicalization of Buffalo mass shooter

<i>Jeffrey T. Barnes/REUTERS</i><br/>Police officers secure the scene after a shooting at TOPS supermarket in Buffalo
Jeffrey T. Barnes/REUTERS
Police officers secure the scene after a shooting at TOPS supermarket in Buffalo

By Zenebou Sylla and Artemis Moshtaghian, CNN

A wrongful death lawsuit filed against several social media companies Friday alleges that social media lent to the radicalization of the gunman who shot and killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last May.

The lawsuit alleges that the then 18-year-old Payton Gendron “was not raised by a racist family” and “had no personal history of negative interactions with Black people.” Gendron was motivated to carry out the attack at Tops Friendly Market “by racist, antisemitic, and white supremacist propaganda recommended and fed to him by the social media companies whose products he used,” according to the lawsuit.

John Elmore is one of the attorneys who filed the suit on behalf of the families of three victims of the mass shooting — Heyward Patterson, Katherine “Kat” Massey and Andre Mackniel, and assistant store manager Latisha Rogers who survived the shooting. Elmore told CNN that this is a “lurking danger.”

The lawsuit claims the social media companies “profit from the racist, antisemitic, and violent material displayed on their platforms to maximize user engagement,” including the time Gendron spent on their platforms viewing that material.

“Payton Gendron has pled guilty to these murders and is no longer a danger to society,” Elmore said in statement from the Social Media Victims Law Center. “However, the social media platforms that radicalized him, and the companies that armed him, must still be held accountable for their actions. Our goal, on behalf of our clients, is to make this community and our nation safer and prevent other mass shootings.”

The plaintiffs are asking that the social media platforms change the way they recommend content and provide warnings when content poses “a clear and present danger of radicalization and violence to the public.”

The plaintiffs are seeking monetary relief from all of the defendants to be determined at trial.

The filing comes two days before the one-year mark of the fatal grocery store shooting that took place in a predominately Black neighborhood.

Speaking to CNN Sunday, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown commended some of the victims’ families and survivors for tackling extremism on social media platforms.

“Their actions in fighting for positive changes on gun reform, fighting White supremacy, fighting to reign in social media so hate speech can’t be spread by technology companies through social media — the families have been nothing short of courageous,” he told CNN’s Victor Blackwell on “CNN This Morning.”

Filed in State Supreme Court in Erie County, the lawsuit names multiple social media platforms or their parent company, collectively identified as “Social Media Defendants,” including Meta (Facebook), Snap, YouTube, Discord, Alphabet, 4chan and Amazon. The lawsuit also identifies Gendron’s parents, Paul and Pamela Gendron; the gun store from which Gendron purchased the firearm he used in the shooting, a weapons manufacturer and a body armor supplier, as defendants.

CNN has reached out to the social media companies and other defendants listed in the lawsuit for comment.

In a statement to CNN, Snapchat, which is owned by Snap, said, “We have a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech and discrimination of any kind. We deliberately designed Snapchat differently than traditional social media platforms and don’t allow unvetted content to go viral or be algorithmically promoted. Instead, we vet all content before it can reach a large audience, which helps protect against the discovery of potentially harmful or dangerous content.”

Google, the owner of YouTube, provided a statement to CNN in response to the lawsuit.

“We have the deepest sympathies for the victims and families of the horrific attack at Tops grocery store in Buffalo last year. Through the years, YouTube has invested in technology, teams, and policies to identify and remove extremist content. We regularly work with law enforcement, other platforms, and civil society to share intelligence and best practices,” wrote YouTube spokesperson José Castañeda.

Discord issued a statement after the shooting denouncing White supremacy, as did Twitch, which said they “have a zero-tolerance policy against violence of any kind, and we use several mechanisms to detect, escalate, and remove violence on Twitch.”

Meta designated the event as a “terrorist attack” and began removing copies of videos and documents pertaining to the shooting and links to them on other sites, a company spokesperson told CNN days after the shooting.

Motivated by financial gains, lawsuit claims

The social media platforms listed in the lawsuit were motivated by financial gains in utilizing algorithms to maximize Gendron’s engagement with their respective platforms “by introducing him to extreme and inherently harmful content” and “then pushing him to progressively more extreme content over time,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Gendron explicitly acknowledged that the racist, antisemitic, and violence promoting material he encountered on social media caused his radicalization, motivated him to commit racial violence and provided the training, equipment, and expertise to plan and implement the massacre of May 14, 2022,” according to the complaint.

Gendron was able to livestream himself discussing his plans for the massacre for over 20 minutes and broadcast the shootings for two more minutes on the social media platform Twitch, owned by Amazon, before Twitch shut down the feed, the lawsuit claims.

While the livestream was initially viewed by roughly two dozen Twitch users, the video was eventually posted on other social media platforms starting with 4chan, then posted onto Reddit, and then on Facebook, where video of the shooting was displayed “next to advertisements,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that social media platforms “Meta, Alphabet, Reddit and 4chan earned advertising revenue from hosting and amplifying” Gendron’s video on their platforms.

The livestream has been viewed by over 3 million people and “in the one year since the Tops massacre, additional killers have livestreamed mass shootings just like Gendron did,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that “Amazon knew or should have known that future mass shooters would livestream their rampages on Twitch and that the livestreaming of such crimes on Twitch would inspire future shootings.”

Shooter’s parents named as defendants in suit

Gendron’s parents, named as defendants in the lawsuit, “failed to respond to clear red flags that their son was planning to carry out an act of gun violence,” the lawsuit alleges. “Paul and Pamela Gendron’s actions and inactions were inexorably intertwined with their son’s actions.”

Gendron’s parents have not been charged in relation to the mass shooting, and condemned their son’s actions, saying with his “plea of guilty, he will be held accountable for his actions.” CNN has reached out to the attorney who represented Gendron to contact his parents for comment on the lawsuit.

Firearm and body armor retailers also sued

Vintage Firearms was named as a defendant in the lawsuit because the Upstate New York gun shop sold the Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle that Gendron used in the mass shooting. The lawsuit alleges that Gendron frequented the store, finding “camaraderie” there, telling the gun shop employees about modifications he had made to his rifle after watching instructional videos on how to do so on social media platforms.

“New York Common Law requires gun sellers like Vintage Firearms to take the appropriate steps considering red flags indicating that the purchaser may use the weapon in a dangerous or illegal way,” according to the lawsuit.

The owner of Vintage Firearms told CNN affiliate WABC last year that he has never had a problem with selling guns in the almost 30 years his business has been open and said he couldn’t believe what happened.

“Nobody envisions a young man doing this,” Robert Donald told WABC.

Mean Arms sold Gendron “an easily removable firearms lock” designed with the ability to modify the AR-15 rifle he purchased from Vintage Firearms, the lawsuit alleges.

“If Mean Arms had not falsely advertised its product as suitable for rendering AR firearms complaint with New York State law, Vintage Firearms would not have been able to sell Gendron a Bushmaster XM15-E2S firearm with an easily removable lock such that he could use removable magazines to fire approximately 60 shots in approximately two minutes,” according to the lawsuit.

CNN has reached out to Vintage Firearms, Mean Arms and RMA Armament for comment.

On Thursday, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Mean Arms alleging that the gun manufacturer aided in “the illegal possession of assault weapons in New York, including the weapon used in the mass shooting in Buffalo in May 2022,” according to a statement from the AG’s office.

“We lost 10 innocent lives because a hate-fueled individual was able to make an AR-15 even deadlier through a simple change at home,” James said in the statement. “Mean Arms sells the MA Lock device knowing that it can be easily removed to make guns more dangerous, and even gives directions on how to take this action.”

A product description of the MA Lock device says it’s “developed for states with intrusive laws requiring fixed magazine,” and installing the product “makes AR firearms legal and compliant, leaving all your favorite tactical features in place.”

CNN has reached out to Mean Arms for comment on both lawsuits.

In October, New York Attorney General James and Governor Kathy Hochul released a report detailing the role that social media platforms played in the Buffalo mass shooting.

“The report concludes that fringe online platforms, like 4chan, radicalized the shooter; livestreaming platforms, like Twitch, were weaponized to publicize and encourage copycat violent attacks; and a lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability of these platforms allowed hateful and extremist views to proliferate online, leading to radicalization and violence,” according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Ramishah Maruf and Celina Tebor contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Business/Consumer

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