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HomeAnonymousAre Tech Companies Liable for Buffalo’s Racist Massacre? F…

Are Tech Companies Liable for Buffalo’s Racist Massacre? F…


Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Today we’ll look at whether tech companies like Google and Meta were to blame for last year’s racist massacre in Buffalo, as the families of some victims say.

How much responsibility do tech companies have for the radicalization of Payton Gendron, the gunman whose racist assault on a supermarket in Buffalo last year left 10 people dead, all of them Black?

That is the overriding question in two new lawsuits, the latest attempts to hold social media companies responsible when people steeped in violent ideologies they found online open fire. The suits were filed by lawyers for families of victims in Buffalo, who say that the companies introduced Gendron to racist ideas, and that their algorithms direct videos to people looking for racist or hateful content.

I asked Jesse McKinley, who has covered court hearings in the aftermath of the shooting, to discuss these cases.

Before he livestreamed the assault in Buffalo — something that wouldn’t have been possible without today’s technology — how much time did Payton Gendron spend online? How was he changed by what he saw there?

Gendron spent untold hours online in the months before the May 2022 shooting, something we know because of digital diaries he left behind, some of which he made public shortly before the attack. Those writings, as well as a manifesto he published, paint a portrait of a troubled teen whose radicalization — and increasingly virulent racism — led him to prepare for a mass shooting.

He also learned about methods for carrying out such an attack, and wrote about them, online.

The relatives and their lawsuits are arguing that tech platforms are essentially dangerous products. Is that an unusual legal strategy? Have relatives of victims of other mass shootings filed lawsuits against tech companies?

Unusual, yes, but not unheard-of, and according to digital law experts, a possible way to get around the broad protections afforded by Section 230.

Section 230?

A portion of a federal law, the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It was drafted in the early days of the internet to shield online companies against liability for third-party content published on their sites. The idea was to protect companies from lawsuits over speech published in chat rooms or other forums, but critics say its scope has broadened to a point where it basically exempts them from any responsibility for hateful or violent speech on their platforms.

The lawsuits in Buffalo make almost the exact same argument — that the apps themselves are “defective.” The lawyers behind the two Buffalo cases see that as a way around free-speech content protections.

Two recent suits elsewhere — one against Snapchat, the other against Omegle, an anonymous online chat website — have found some initial success with this type of argument. But the experts I spoke to still said the Buffalo suits would be a tough sell, considering the success that tech defendants have had in using Section 230 to have cases dismissed.

The families say they want accountability. Doesn’t accountability go beyond tech? What about filing suit against the companies that made the weapons and ammunition?

The Buffalo suits also both name a body armor company and gun dealers, as well as the shooter’s parents, but don’t go after manufacturers.

That appears to reflect their strategy of pursuing accountability while recognizing that taking on companies like Google and Meta is a sizable task in and of itself. Indeed, there has been little mention of what kind of damages the plaintiffs are seeking. Lawsuits against huge companies often involve plaintiffs asking for big money.

Here, it is clear they want to punish the social media companies and make them change their methods of feeding hateful content to impressionable viewers. One of the lawsuits contends that “knowing and malicious actions and omissions” by the social media companies resulted in “a continuing public nuisance.”

What about the idea that constitutionally protected free speech can include hate speech?

The lawsuits themselves are unsparing in what sort of harm they feel that hate speech is doing, particularly when amplified by algorithms capable of feeding a never-ending stream of such content to viewers glued to laptops and smartphones.

Again and again, it seems, the lawsuits attempt to make the point that both the content and its delivery method are dangerous, even if free-speech protections are considered.

You talked to experts in digital law who said the two Buffalo lawsuits will have to clear relatively high hurdles. Why?

It almost always starts and ends with Section 230, which has increasingly been the source of agitation for lawmakers and concerned citizens who say it’s a free pass to tech giants who dominate many aspects of modern living.

One unhappy harbinger for the Buffalo families could be a pair of Supreme Court decisions from May which rejected efforts by families of victims to seek damages from Google and Twitter for providing platforms for ISIS videos prior to two international terrorist attacks.

What do the social media companies say about the Buffalo cases?

For their part, online companies insist that they are cracking down on hateful content and will continue to. Jess Miers, the legal advocacy counsel for a lobbying group that represents tech firms, acknowledged that social media and their algorithms can “inadvertently amplify objectionable content,” as happened in Buffalo. But she said that Section 230 meant that social media companies “can continue using algorithms to deprioritize harmful content.”

Google — which owns YouTube — echoed that idea, expressing sympathy for Buffalo victims and saying that it has “invested in technology, teams, and policies to identify and remove extremist content.”

Finally, what about the families themselves?

The pain is still there and pulsing, particularly in Buffalo’s Black community, where other tragedies like last winter’s blizzard — which killed dozens, a majority of whom were Black — compounded the hurt from the massacre.

Still, there’s a sense of mission about the lawsuits and a sense of duty to try to get someone to accept blame beyond Gendron, who has already pleaded guilty in state court and is facing federal charges, too.

Garnell Whitfield, whose mother Ruth was one of the 10 people who were killed, said he recognized the legal challenges in the case he’s a part of. But he told me he hoped it would shed light on what happened at Tops and “what continues to happen” in other racist mass shootings.

“I understand it’s difficult,” he told me, “but we all know what the truth is. There’s nothing difficult about the truth.”


It’s a partly sunny day near the high 80s, with a chance of showers. At night, it’s partly cloudy. Temperatures will drop to the low 70s.


In effect until Aug. 15 (Feast of the Assumption).


Dear Diary:

There is a bench in Central Park that I love to sit on. It is dedicated to Steve Karmen, who wrote the “I Love New York” jingle. The bench faces the Central Park carousel. I sometimes spend hours there, daydreaming and watching the children’s happy faces.

One beautiful afternoon, I was sitting on the bench and humming the jingle when I saw an older woman with a cane walking as fast she could toward the carousel.

She was smiling from ear to ear but she was moving so fast that I feared she might fall down. I assumed she was excited because she was meeting her grandchildren and was in a hurry to see them.

I instinctively stood up to be nearby and ready should anything happen to her, so I was close enough to hear her speak to the attendant as she got to the ticket booth.

“Hello,” she said. “How much is a ride?”

“$3.25,” the attendant said.

“Give me two,” the woman said. “Once I am on that horse, it’s tough for me to get down.”

— Nadia Miller

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