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Reddit and YouTube must face a lawsuit over the radicalization of the Buffalo shooter

A memorial to the 10 victims of the racist shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo. Two tech companies must face a lawsuit alleging that their algorithms played a role in radicalizing the shooter, a judge ruled Monday.
Matt Burkhartt
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A memorial to the 10 victims of the racist shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo. Two tech companies must face a lawsuit alleging that their algorithms played a role in radicalizing the shooter, a judge ruled Monday.

The tech companies Reddit and YouTube must face a lawsuit filed by the survivors of a racist shooting in Buffalo that alleges the sites' algorithms helped to radicalize the shooter and prepare him for the attack, a New York state judge has ruled.

Filed last year, the lawsuit claims that, before the shooter killed 10 Black people at a Tops grocery store in 2022, he steeped himself in increasingly inflammatory and conspiratorial content on YouTube and Reddit, then sought guidance on the platforms to acquire a weapon and body armor for the attack.

The suit is a test of the limits of Section 230, a law that has long shielded internet platformsfrom lawsuits over content posted by their users. The plaintiffs are 25 survivors of the shooting, who are represented by the legal group Everytown Law, which specializes in gun safety litigation.

Reddit and YouTube had independently asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. But in a ruling Monday, Judge Paula Feroleto rejected those requests.

"For too long, social media companies have skirted accountability by hiding behind Section 230, claiming immunity from liability for content they distribute," Everytown Law Executive Director Eric Tirschwell said in a statement. "We must hold accountable every single bad actor that prepared and equipped the shooter to target and kill members of Buffalo's Black community."

In statements to NPR, Reddit and YouTube said they disagreed with the decision and planned to appeal.

"While we disagree with today's decision and will be appealing, we will continue to work with law enforcement, other platforms, and civil society to share intelligence and best practices," said José Castañeda, a spokesperson for YouTube, who added his sympathies for the victims and families of the shooting.

Testing the limits of Section 230

For nearly three decades, Section 230 has protected internet platforms of all kinds, from message boards to video hosting sites to modern social media apps, from most legal liability for what their users post.

In recent years, as algorithms have taken greater control over which content users see, that legal protection has been increasingly called into question in cases that have reached the Supreme Court.

But the Buffalo lawsuit sidesteps Section 230 entirely by casting YouTube and Reddit's algorithms as a "defective product." If the court agrees, it could subject the tech companies to an entirely different set of laws — the same laws that would hold any manufacturer liable for harm caused by a dangerous product.

That question was not settled by Monday's decision. "The social media/internet defendants may still prove that their platforms were mere message boards ... thereby providing them with the protections" of Section 230 and the First Amendment, the judge wrote.

For months leading up to the attack in May 2022, the lawsuit says, the shooter's "near constant use of social media" — and the algorithms that provided an continuing stream of videos to watch and forums to explore — exposed him to racist conspiracy theories and radicalized him to a dangerous degree.

The shooter, who is white and was 18 at the time of the attack, "did not begin his YouTube experience by watching hateful and violent videos," the lawsuit claims, but rather was steered to them by YouTube's algorithm and autoplay functions. On Reddit, the site's algorithm helped him find online communities that provided him with "know-how and extremist encouragement he needed to commit the attack at Tops," the complaint states.

Spokespeople for Reddit and YouTube alike said that their companies have invested in technology to combat extremist and hateful content.

"We are constantly evaluating ways to improve our detection and removal of this content, including through enhanced image-hashing systems, and we will continue to review the communities on our platform to ensure they are upholding our rules," a Reddit spokesperson said.

Pending the appeals, the claims against YouTube and Reddit may now continue to discovery, the stage of a lawsuit in which the parties can be compelled to produce documentation and lawyers can interview witnesses under oath in depositions.

The lawsuit will also proceed against several other defendants, including an arms manufacturer and the gun shop that sold the shooter his weapon.

The shooter, Payton Gendron, was sentenced last year under state charges to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also faces federal hate crime charges. In January, federal prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty, a first for the Biden administration.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.