That is what one woman, Tamara Fields, is claiming. She is suing Twitter for enabling an Islamic State (“ISIS”) attack which killed her husband, Lloyd “Carl” Fields, on November 9th in Jordan. Her suit contends that Twitter violated the Anti-Terrorism Act. The Act permits U.S. citizens to triple damages for injuries suffered from acts of international terrorism. The lawsuit alleges that Twitter enables ISIS and other terrorist groups to grow, recruit, and disseminate propaganda. The case is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and is one of the first of its kind.
While it is evident that terrorist groups are gaining far too much traction on social media, how successful will a lawsuit like this be?
Did Twitter Help Kill Fields?
Tamara Fields’ lawsuit contends that Twitter’s activity was a substantial factor in her husband’s death. It further alleges his death could have been foreseeable. Fields’ attorney states, “It was foreseeable that giving ISIS unfettered access to Twitter accounts would enable them to recruit, fundraise, and spread their propaganda and that this would lead to the deaths of innocent civilians.”
The question becomes whether Twitter knowingly or in willful ignorance allowed ISIS groups to use their platform to spread propaganda and did nothing to stop it.
Different social media platforms have different standards to stop terrorist-related propaganda. For example, Facebook shuts down any page, group or profile related to terrorist organizations or any content celebrating terrorism. Of the social media giants, it is the best at removing ISIS-related videos, newsletters and photos.
Social media outlets like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter rely primarily on users to identify offensive content, which is reviewed and may be deleted. These companies are not legally required to report the offensive material to government agencies, but they often do if they come across content which raises serious red flags.
In the past several years, the use of Twitter has grown, especially among ISIS supporters. It began to increase suspensions to Twitter accounts after videos and images of journalist James Foley’s beheading was disseminated on social media. Although Twitter has successfully identified many terrorist groups and suspended their accounts, users whose accounts are suspended often come back with new accounts.
Even if Twitter hasn’t been altogether successful, they have teams around the world who actively identify violating conduct, investigate reports of rule violations, partner with organizations countering extremist content online, and work with law enforcement.
As with any social media platform, there is a dichotomy in allowing free speech versus restricting dangerous terrorist propaganda. Twitter, more than any other social media outlet, is known for liberally allowing freedom of expression.
Government regulation of speech in the United States is generally considered unconstitutional pursuant to the First Amendment, regardless of if the speech is offensive or hateful. Free speech activists are concerned that if government officials police certain types of speech, it will lead to censorship.
Communications Decency Act of 1996
According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“C.D.A. Section 230”), intermediaries like Twitter and Facebook cannot be held personally liable for content posted by their subscribers. C.D.A. Section 230 protects internet service providers and interactive computer service providers, which includes practically any online service that publishes third-party content. There are exceptions for certain criminal and intellectual property-claims. However, C.D.A. Section 230 gives broad protection that permits controversial or political speech to flourish online.
It is important to note that the legal protections provided by C.D.A. Section 230 are limited to U.S. Law. Canada, Japan, European nations, and many other countries do not have similar statutes which provide such expansive protections. While other countries have high levels of internet access, most prominent online services originate in the United States.
Will Fields’ Lawsuit be Successful?
Given the First Amendment Free Speech protections, coupled with C.D.A. Section 230, it is unlikely that Tamara Fields lawsuit will go very far before being thrown out.
Authored by Erin Chan-Adams, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law