On January 6, 2022, Cohen Milstein filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Angela Underwood Jacobs, the sister of Dave Patrick Underwood, against Meta Platforms, Inc., formerly Facebook, Inc., alleging that by connecting users to extremist groups and promoting inflammatory, divisive, and untrue content, the company bears responsibility for the tragic murder of Mr. Underwood.
The case, Underwood v. Meta Platforms, Inc., was filed with the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Alameda.
On May 29, 2020, Department of Homeland Security Officer Dave Patrick Underwood was providing security at a federal courthouse during a rally to protest the killing of George Floyd. According to documents filed in federal criminal proceedings, Officer Underwood was the victim of a drive-by shooting by Steven Carrillo and his accomplice, Robert Alvin Justus, Jr., who identify as boogaloo adherents, part of an extremist movement that advocates targeted violence against federal officers.
Plaintiff alleges that the shooting was not a random act of violence. It was the culmination of an extremist plot hatched and planned on Facebook by two men who connected in a Boogaloo Facebook group through Facebook’s algorithms.
The criminal complaints filed by the United States Department of Justice indicate the FBI’s investigation revealed that Carrillo and Justus connected through a boogaloo Facebook group on May 28, 2020 after Carrillo posted a YouTube video to the group showing a large crowd violently attacking two California Highway Patrol vehicles, writing: “It’s on our coast now, this needs to be nationwide. It’s a great opportunity to target specialty soup bois [a known term for federal law enforcement officers]. Keep that energy going.” Justus allegedly responded to that post in agreement: “Let’s boogie.” The Department of Justice has alleged that Carrillo and Justus agreed to meet on May 29, 2020 and drive together to the Oakland protests.
Plaintiff further alleges that Facebook’s algorithms promote inflammatory content and groups as a way to engage users and keep them active, which in turn drives ad sales and revenue. In recent years, the company has focused on increasing membership in groups through advertising campaigns and developing tools and support services for the administrators and moderators of Facebook groups.
Plaintiff also alleges that Facebook is aware of — but knowingly failed to warn users of — the role its algorithms play in boosting extremist content and the impact that online content and groups, like the boogaloo, have in increasing extremism and the type of open violence for which they advocate.
For example, in April 2020 and as cited in today’s filing, the Tech Transparency Project reported that “online extremists are using Facebook to plan and organize a militant uprising in the United States.” Despite these warnings, the filing alleges that Facebook has repeatedly failed to crack down on the use of its platform for this activity. In fact, Facebook allegedly continued to recommend such groups to its users through its “related pages” and “suggested groups” functions.
Cohen Milstein anticipates that Facebook will seek to cloak its conduct in the immunity provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which became law in 1996 and was ostensibly designed to encourage the development of the Internet. Since then, Section 230 has shielded tech giants from accountability for illegal activities organized on social media platforms. Public disclosures in late 2021 revealed Facebook’s inner-workings and show Facebook’s active role in shaping the content on its website as well as creating and building groups on the platform – activities that fall outside of the conduct protected by Section 230.
As a result of her brother’s tragic and preventable death, Plaintiff seeks all available economic and noneconomic damages, including punitive damages.
The case name is: Underwood v. Meta Platforms, Inc., Case No. 39130.001, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Alameda.