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Supreme Court refuses to hear lawsuit alleging Facebook helped Hamas conduct terrorist attacks

The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C., on September 25, 2018.(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
May 20, 2020

The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit on Monday that claimed Facebook helps terrorists by recommending Hamas-affiliated groups on the website to some of its users.

The country’s highest court declined to hear Force v. Facebook, a lawsuit by families of the victims of a terrorist attack by Hamas, a U.S. government-designated terrorist organization. The families sued Facebook in 2016 for providing “material support” to the group by hosting their content. Facebook is protected under a specific section of the law that doesn’t hold social media platforms accountable for what their users post, including material posted by terrorist organizations.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects Facebook and other social media platforms from being held legally liable for what its users post on its site, including if they post illegal material. The section says that as long as the platforms themselves are politically neutral, they fall under the Section 230 protections because they are not legally considered the publisher of third-party material.

The lawsuit against Facebook began in 2016 after several families’ of the victims of terrorist attacks by Hamas occurred between 2014 and 2016 in Israel. The victims are Stuart Force, Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, Chaya Zissel Braun, and Richard Lakin. One victim survived, Menachem Mendel Rivkin. The complaint alleged that Facebook’s algorithm promoted terrorist content to people who liked similar pages or posts. It also said that Facebook should reduce its immunity from the law under these circumstances.

“The tragic circumstances of this case make all too clear that the practical implications of the questions presented are extraordinarily important,” lawyers for the victims write in a petition sent to the court earlier this year. “Social media today reaches into the homes, offices and lives of billions of people, with potential for harm — and good — without parallel in human history.”

Facebook’s use of algorithms for recommendations — which allegedly “helped introduce thousands of terrorists to one another, facilitating the development of global terror networks” — should strip the company of immunity, the lawyers representing Force and the other Hamas victims previously argued.

In July 2019, the suit was struck down by the Second Circuit appeals court, saying that there was “no basis” to consider Facebook the publisher of the material posted by the Hamas groups on its site.

Judge Robert Allen Katzmann, the Second Circuit’s chief judge, dissented from the majority opinion.

“As is so often the case with new technologies, the very qualities that drive social media’s success — its ease of use, open access, and ability to connect the world — have also spawned its demons,” he wrote.

“Shielding internet companies that bring terrorists together using algorithms could leave dangerous activity unchecked,” he added. “Hamas is far from alone — Hezbollah, Boko Haram, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and many other designated terrorist organizations use Facebook to recruit and rouse supporters.”

Force v. Facebook was one of several lawsuits against social media platforms for reportedly spreading terrorist propaganda and helping build terrorist networks online, but experts believe this case will make it much harder to sue them in the future for these reasons.