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Tech Giants Avoid Liability for Online Radicalization

By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 05, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We've come a long way in technology since a court ruled against Helen Palsgraf, who sued a railroad company after a guard helped a man get on the train and his package of fireworks fell, causing an explosion that rattled a scale to fall on the woman at the other end of the platform.

Today, a court ruled against a police officer who sued Twitter, Facebook, and Google after he responded to the shooting of five other officers by a former Army reservist who had killed the officers to protest police killings of black men in two other states because terrorists groups spread their philosophies on the social media networks.

Well, maybe we have not come that far in the law. But in a proximate cause way, that's a good thing for social media networks. For victims of terrorism, not really.

Proximate Cause

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero dismissed Sgt. Demetrick Pennie's lawsuit because he could not show a causal link between the terrorists' use of social media and the killer's actions.

"Absent plausible allegations that Hamas itself was in some way a substantial factor in the attack, there is no basis to conclude that any support provided by defendants to Hamas was a substantial factor," Spero wrote.

It's not the first time plaintiffs have failed to connect social media to wrongs committed by users. The principles established by Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. in 1929 still apply.

Spero said Pennie, and Rick Zamarripa, the father of one of the slain officers, failed to "plausibly allege a connection between Hamas and the Dallas shooting."

"Exploited Social Media"

When Pennie filed his complaint earlier this year, he alleged that terrorists had "exploited social media" to spread their propaganda. Federal officials and scholars agreed.

Hamas Twitter accounts, for example, had as many as 281,000 followers. Pennie said Twitter, Facebook and Google know about the problem.

Meanwhile, another killer took out eight people in New York City and said terrorist propaganda inspired him to do it. According to police, the man appeared to "to have followed almost exactly to a 'T' the instructions that ISIS has put out in its social media channels before, with instructions to their followers on how to carry out such an attack."

It may spur another lawsuit, but it still may not get past the proximate cause problem.

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