A series of deadly terrorist attacks over the past couple of years has given many people reason to believe that terrorism is on the rise. While it is true to say that there has been a spike in terrorism-related deaths in the West since 2015, globally, the figure is actually declining, according to a recent report in the New York Times.
However, after heinous attacks in Brussels; Paris; Orlando, Florida; and San Bernardino, California; people in the West are increasingly looking for someone or something to blame — a tangible body that can be readily held accountable in a court of law.
Family members of three of the victims of the Pulse nightclub killings in Florida back in June — a massacre that resulted in nearly 50 lives lost and dozens more injured — have now filed a lawsuit against Google, Twitter, and Facebook for providing “material support” to the terrorist organization known as ISIS. The lawsuit accuses the defendants of “knowingly” permitting ISIS to use the defendants’ respective platforms to recruit people, raise funds, and spread propaganda. They allege that “Through the use of the defendants’ platforms, ISIS has acquired over 30,000 foreign recruits, countless donations, and a level of prosperity that would have been unachievable otherwise,” according to a press release issued by the families’ law firm, 1-800-Law-Firm. This latest lawsuit follows a string of similar cases that have come to fruition in recent months. Back in January, the families of two U.S.-based contractors killed in a suspected terrorist attack in Jordan announced they were suing Twitter for “knowingly” allowing ISIS to attract new recruits and raise funds. The plaintiffs in the case didn’t allege that ISIS or the so-called “lone wolf” killer in Jordan had used Twitter to plan or carry out that specific attack, but Twitter became the target because of ISIS’ “extensive use of Twitter” across the board. The judge dismissed the case in August, and again three months later, after permitting the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint.
In June this year, Reynaldo Gonzalez, father of U.S. citizen Nohemi Gonzalez — who was killed in the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015 — announced plans to sue Twitter, Facebook, and Google for “providing material support” to terrorists. Once again, 1-800-Law-Firm is the representing firm.
While there are many reasons to sympathize with the victims and families in such cases, it will be difficult to prosecute technology companies that merely provide platforms for third parties to communicate on. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 essentially provides communication service providers — such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google — immunity from liability for content published by others.

Changing tack

But it’s clear that the lawyers are fine-tuning their tactics to better align the technology companies with the actions of terrorists on the platform, and are accusing the named defendants of “using ISIS’ posts to create unique content by combining these posts with advertisements selected by them.” In other words, the lawyers are claiming that the technology companies are more than platform-providers — they’re original content creators that share ad revenue with the terrorist postings.
“Social media companies continue to allow terrorists to operate, despite reasonable steps that could be undertaken to stop them,” said 1-800-Law-Firm’s Keith Altman. “The defendants not only continue to let terror groups like ISIS use their sites to tout hate and plan attacks, they also profit from it. Each of the defendants places advertisements on ISIS content, profiting directly from their postings. In at least the case of Google’s YouTube, advertising revenue is shared with ISIS.”
Earlier this month, in an attempt to circumvent the CDA, the family of Nohemi Gonzalez submitted an amended version of the suit that was originally filed in June. “Although defendants have not created the posting, nor have they created the advertisement, defendants have created new unique content by choosing which advertisement to combine with the posting,” Altman noted in the revised complaint.
There will undoubtedly be continued calls for social media firms to “do more” to combat terrorism, even though Twitter alone has suspended hundred of thousands of terrorism-related accounts. But if lawyers can convince judges that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are content creators — even if it is via their respective ad-tech algorithms — we could see social media firms ramp their efforts up tenfold.