Families of Nightclub Victims Blame Social Media

(CN) – Three families of Orlando nightclub shooting victims filed a federal lawsuit against Facebook, Google and Twitter, accusing the sites of being recruiting tools for the Islamic State terrorist group.

Tevin Eugene Crosby, Juan Ramon Guerrero Jr. and Javier Jorge-Reyes were among the 49 people killed by Omar Mateen in the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12.

Their parents and siblings sued the social media giants in Eastern Michigan federal court on Monday, claiming the companies are liable for acts of international terrorism.

“For years, defendants have knowingly and recklessly provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts to use its social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds, and attracting new recruits,” the families allege.

Without Facebook, Twitter and Google, “the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” according to the complaint.

The families quoted FBI Director James Coney as saying ISIS uses the social media sites “to crowdsource terrorism” and “to sell murder.”

At one point, the families say, ISIS media wing Al-Furqan tweeted messages from leaders of the terrorist group and showed videos of beheadings to its 19,000 Twitter followers.

“As of December 2014, ISIS had an estimated 70,000 Twitter accounts, at least 79 of which were ‘official,’ and it posted at least 90 tweets every minute,” the complaint states, adding that the terrorist group uses Facebook and Google-owned YouTube in a similar way.

The victims’ families also claim Google shares advertising revenue with ISIS.

“Plaintiffs’ claims are based not upon the content of ISIS’ social media postings, but upon defendants provision of the infrastructure which provides material support to ISIS,” the families asserted.

They quoted the Brookings Institution as saying that some members of the Islamic State “use Twitter purely for private messaging or covert signaling.”

According to the complaint, ISIS used the hashtag #WorldCup to expose millions of soccer fans to a photo of a beheaded Iraqi police chief, with the caption: “This is our ball…it has skin on it.”

The families cite a New York Times report that says, “in a video available on YouTube and Facebook, the Islamic State has manipulated the video game Grand Theft Auto, making the game’s officers look like New York police officers and showing how a militant could attack them.”

The complaint also quotes a 2011 blog post from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and counsel Alex Macgillivray: “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

The families of Crosby, Guerrero and Jorge-Reyes claim that when Twitter does shut down an account, a new one springs back up with a similar name and an altered numerical suffix. For example, @DriftOne0150 was followed by @DriftOne0151 with the same profile photo, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs noted that the hacking group Anonymous wiped out several thousand ISIS Twitter accounts in November 2015.

“That an external third party could identify and disrupt ISIS Twitter accounts confirms that Twitter itself could have prevented or substantially limited ISIS’ use of Twitter,” the lawsuit states.

According to the families, Crosby was “an ambitious and goal-oriented 25-year-old business owner,” Jorge-Reyes was “a 40-year-old style-conscious and customer-oriented manager at Gucci,” and Guerrero was “a 22-year-old student who had just finished his first year studying at the University of Central Florida.”

“The FBI believes that the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was self-radicalized on the Internet and social media,” the complaint states.

The families seek an unspecified amount of damages for alleged violations of the Anti-Terrorism Act. They are represented by Keith L. Altman, Solomon M. Radner and Ari Kresch of Southfield, Mich.

Facebook said in a statement in response to the lawsuit, “We take swift action to remove this content when it’s reported to us…We sympathize with the victims and their families.”

Twitter declined to comment, and Google did not immediately respond Wednesday to an emailed request for comment.

A similar lawsuit filed in California was dismissed last month. In that case, a widow sued Twitter after her husband was killed in an Islamic State attack on a police training center in Jordan.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled that allowing Tamara Fields’ lawsuit would mean that “any plaintiff could hold Twitter liable for any ISIS-related injury without alleging any connection between a particular terrorist act and Twitter’s provision of accounts.”