CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The wife of Reverend Clementa Pinckney — who was killed in the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel — has filed a lawsuit on behalf of her daughter against Facebook’s parent company Meta, alleging online propaganda prompted the shooting.
The suit claims that the shooter, Dylann Roof, was radicalized by online rhetoric promoting white supremacism targeted at him through Facebook’s algorithms.
Russian national Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin is also named as a defendant in the suit. He was allegedly a major player in a Russian scheme to “cause civil unrest in the United States via social media” and “to incite racial hate and racial violence in the United States.”
According to the suit, Facebook was a breeding ground for extremism due to its lack of guardrails and propensity to propagate and reinforce radical ideas.
“Because the algorithms recommend that susceptible users join extremist groups, where users are conditioned to post even more inflammatory and divisive content, Facebook is naturally open to exploitation by white supremacist groups and racial hate-mongerers.
Roof did not just find but was directed by Facebook, based on its algorithms’ knowledge of Roof’s engagement on the internet (both on and off of Facebook), to groups or communities in which his views were cultivated, developed and made more extreme, ultimately taking Roof off of the internet and into the real world to commit violence.”
While Roof was the one to ultimately pull the trigger, the suit claims he “was shown so much white supremacist propaganda that he believed the heinous act he ultimately committed at Mother Emanuel was necessary to spark a race war and save the white race.”
Roof’s own defense attorney admitted in the trial that “every bit of [his] motivation came from things he saw on the internet… He is simply regurgitating, in whole paragraphs, slogans, and facts, bits and pieces of facts that he downloaded from the internet directly into his brain.”
The possibility for such violence was not only foreseeable to Meta executives, according to the lawsuit, but was a sacrifice they calculated was worth making.
“Facebook knows that the most negative emotions—fear, anger, hate—are the most engaging. Facebook employs psychologists and social scientists as “user researchers” to analyze its users’ behavior in response to online content. An internal Facebook presentation by one such researcher, leaked in May 2020, warned: ‘Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. … If left unchecked, … [Facebook would feed users] more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention [and] increase time on the platform.’”
Several studies on how Facebook generates content were cited, all of which reflected Facebook’s prioritizing of time spent on the site over content moderation. The lawsuit also referenced the testimony of whistleblowers like former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who raised concern possible consequences of the violent rhetoric.
The suit seeks damages on behalf of Jennifer Pinckney’s daughter, who hid under a desk in a nearby room as her father and eight other members of the church were fatally shot during Bible study.
Pinckney is seeking a jury trial, during which jurors will be asked “whether Facebook should be held accountable for creating an algorithm that fed increasingly violent and provocative content to its users with the intent to psychologically influence those users to spend more time engaged with Facebook for the purpose of increasing ad revenue.”
Editor’s note: This story is breaking and will be updated.