SAN FRANCISCO — The sister of a slain federal officer is suing Facebook’s parent company Meta, alleging it bears responsibility for her brother’s killing during racial justice protests in 2020.
The Homeland Security protective security officer was fatally shot in May 2020 when a van pulled up outside the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland and a gunman inside the vehicle sprayed bullets at Underwood and his partner, who was wounded in the shooting. Federal authorities identified the shooter as Steven Carrillo, an adherent of the “boogaloo boys,” an online extremist movement that has sought to capitalize on racial justice protests to usher in a race war. Underwood was killed as racial justice protests were underway nearby following the murder of George Floyd.
Now Underwood’s sister, Angela Underwood Jacobs, is accusing Facebook of “knowingly promoting extremist content” and connecting individuals who “planned to engage in acts of violence against federal law enforcement officers,” according to the suit.
The suit alleges wrongful death and a survival action for the pain and suffering Underwood endured before he died, citing alleged general negligence and negligent design by Facebook.
Facebook pushed back against the allegations on Thursday.
“We’ve banned more than 1,000 militarized social movements from our platform and work closely with experts to address the broader issue of Internet radicalization,” said spokesman Kevin McAlister. “These claims are without legal basis.”
The suit takes aim at Facebook and other social media companies’ long-standing legal immunity for harmful content that is posted on their platforms. Technology companies are generally protected from such lawsuits by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says platforms are not publishers of the content posted on their sites, and thus aren’t responsible for the content that appears in such forums.
But Section 230 is coming under fire on a variety of fronts. A series of bills that seek to erode the two-decade-old law was proposed by lawmakers in both parties last year. Last month, a member of the Rohingya ethnic group based in the United States filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Meta, arguing that its platform fanned the flames of violence and led to a genocide in Myanmar in 2017. The lawsuit is seeking class-action status to represent thousands of Rohingya refugees who have resettled in the United States.
Lawyers for Underwood’s sister say Facebook should not be protected by Section 230.
Facebook said it took down hundreds of accounts and groups connected to the boogaloo movement in the wake of the violence in Oakland and an alleged plot to use explosives at a demonstration in Las Vegas, and designated the boogaloo group a “dangerous organization.” Facebook’s action came about a month after the shooting.
Rather than simply allow information to be posted on the site, Facebook actively promoted inflammatory content and steered people toward it, the suit alleges.
“The algorithms are weighted to favor untrue, inflammatory, and divisive content that will grab and keep users’ attention,” the lawsuit says. “Furthermore, the recommendations are not based on Facebook user requests for recommendations — they are pushed onto users.”
That ultimately led the killer and his accomplice to meet over the platform, attorneys allege. They point to criminal complaints from the Justice Department that say Carrillo, then an active-duty Air Force staff sergeant, and his accomplice, Robert Alvin Justus Jr., connected through a boogaloo group on Facebook on May 28, 2020. They agreed to meet on May 29 and drive together to the protests, attorneys said.
“Facebook bears responsibility for the murder of my brother,” Jacobs said in a news release. “Facebook must be held responsible for the harm it has caused not just my family, but so many others, by promoting extremist content and building extremist groups on its platform.” The firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll is representing Jacobs in the wrongful death case.
The complaint also alleges that Facebook “helped build” the boogaloo community that ushered in their planning.
Facebook’s argument that it does not bear responsibility for harmful content was undercut by a trove of documents brought forth in October by whistleblower Frances Haugen. The documents showed that Facebook is deeply involved in researching the effects of harmful content and turning the dials of its algorithms to decide how to promote it to over 2.9 billion monthly users.
The boogaloo movement arose from fringe social media channels such as 4chan before moving to mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where their followings ballooned as their views found a wider audience. Researchers found some groups had at times amassed hundreds of thousands of followers.
The group’s emergence led to a wider examination of the effects of social media on the rise of violent movements, with some making comparisons to foreign militant groups such as the Islamic State.
Carrillo is also accused in a separate killing of a sheriff’s deputy in Santa Cruz County. His attorney previously cautioned against a “rush to judgment” in the cases.
Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.