Social Media Companies Are Not Above the Law

The upcoming trial, Pennie vs. Twitter et al. will argue that Facebook, Google and Twitter facilitated terrorism and radicalized attacks on police officers across the nation, as witnessed in the July 7, 2016 ambush-style shooting attack in Dallas, Texas that claimed the lives of five police officers. The case was filed in federal court for three reasons: (1) to expose social media’s national influence on domestic terrorism, (2) to seek accountability and stop the radicalized attacks on all police officers, and (3) to create a legal argument supported by research for the U.S. Government to regulate social media.

The legal arguments in this case are intended to show that social media companies are not above that law and should not be allowed to operate without federal oversight. Although, the statutory immunity offered under 47 U.S.C § 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) are irrelevant to this case, based on past litigation arguments, the social media companies will claim CDA immunity as the core pillar of their legal defense. Section 230 of the CDA, in summary, states that online service providers are immune from civil liability for illicit third-party content published on their platforms. However, based on factual disclosures, the social media companies are not eligible for CDA immunity because they create, distribute and share profits earned from radicalized content – all of which disqualify the companies from CDA immunity.

Leading up to the trial, it is also important to dispel the falsehoods promoted by the social media companies such as, they do not actively monitor and remove nefarious content from their online platforms because they self-regulate nor do they work in collaboration with law enforcement to report crimes and impending threats to national security. Despite recent shocking revelations about the companies, scathing reports have remained obscured from public scrutiny because of the companies’ sophisticated lobbying efforts to protect their reputational risk. In fact, because of these practices, scandals such as: Facebook selling fake news advertisements to Russia, Google/YouTube posting U.S. company advertisements on ISIS videos and Twitter allowing ISIS to recruit and radicalize on its platform have subtly fallen to the back pages of news forums.

As a doctor of education and law enforcement professional, I have studied the prevalence of emergent radical groups and how their influences have augmented in recent years via social media. Online social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have become the catalyst for the rise in radicalized demonstrations in this country. These platforms have provided the ability for online mobs to develop into real-world mobs by providing the mechanisms for the groups to recruit, radicalize, and share intelligence. For instance, following the 2014 officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) “hands up down shoot” false narrative proliferated through social media like a metastasizing cancer affecting the entire country. The extremist allegiance hashtags that trended across the social media platforms at the apex of the Ferguson riots included: #PalestineforBlacks and #BlacksforPalestine, which revealed the connection between Black Lives Matters and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) groups.

The rate at which the mobs were being created was unlike anything ever seen before in history. It was evident that the organizers understood social media far better than law enforcement and the government agencies responsible for monitoring radicalized behavior online including: DHS, DOJ and FBI. This lack of understanding coupled with social media’s reluctance to share information with law enforcement allowed the online mobs to materialize without intervention. In an effort to better understand the phenomena related to how radical groups such as BLM and Antifa were organizing in mass numbers, I contacted GIPEC, a cyber-intelligence company who had been featured in several news articles on international terrorism and social media.

Though our research, it was determined that hashtags were being used to connect audiences of “like-minds” and social media was aiding in this connectivity based on content “likes” and “shares”. The research also revealed that the social media companies distributed and profited from radicalized content by pushing the content up the news feeds of potential sympathizers and on the Google platform attaching U.S. business advertisements to the radicalized content for profit. These revelations make social media companies not only civilly liable, but also criminally liable for their facilitation of terrorism.

Pennie v. Twitter et al. will prove to be instrumental in combating domestic terrorism in this country. In fact, the case was filed based on provision outlined in 18 U.C.S § 2339A: Providing Material Support to Terrorists, which states in summary that, anyone that provides material support or resources knowing that they are to be used in furtherance of terrorism shall be civilly and criminally liable. This case will also focus on key provisions outlined in the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which holds that an entity can be held civilly liable for conspiring to commit or aiding and abetting an act of terrorism committed by an organization. Although there are other examples suggestive of the Facebook, Google and Twitter’s civil criminal liabilities, for the purposes of this discussion, the day prior to the Dallas shooting attack the companies were all informed about a cartoon-like image depicting a police officer having his throat slit by a revolutionary fighter dressed in all black garb trending across all three platforms with hashtags: #BlackLivesMatter, #KillPolice and #Fuck12 [sic]. Although the trending hashtags were intended to radicalize online social media followers to attack police officers, neither of the social media companies concluded that the content violated their community standards.

In order for this nation to truly be a “nation of laws,” our justice system must ensure that the rule of law is equally applied to all who are governed by it including influential businesses. Facebook, Google and Twitter are not above the law and should be held to the same regulatory standards as every other communications media in this country including television and radio that are governed by the FCC. The lack of accountability over these social media platforms has contributed to: terrorism, child sex trafficking, targeted attacks on police officers, manipulation of elections and online violent exhibitionism. It is time for the law abiding citizens in this nation to stand up say – “Enough is enough!

Demetrick Pennie, M.A., Ed.D