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‘Social Media Caused His Radicalization’: Families of Black Victims of Buffalo Mass Shooting Say Social Media Is To Blame In Lawsuit Targeting Big Tech Companies, Others

Family members of three of the 10 Black victims who were murdered in the Buffalo grocery store shooting last May have filed a sweeping civil lawsuit against several Big Tech companies, a gun parts manufacturer, a body armor manufacturer, and the parents of the shooter.

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Payton Gendron arrives for a hearing at the Erie County Courthouse on May 19, 2022, in Buffalo, New York. Gendron is accused of killing 10 people and wounding another 3 during a shooting at a Tops supermarket on May 14 in Buffalo. The attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Social Media Victims Center, The Law Offices of John Elmore, and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed the suit in the New York Supreme Court Friday morning on behalf of shooting survivor Latisha Rogers and the loved ones of shooting victims Heyward Patterson, Katherine “Kat” Massey, and Andre MacKneil.

MacKneil was a father of five who was at Tops Friendly Markets on May 14, 2022, to buy a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son’s birthday party. Massey was a community activist and retired teacher. Patterson was a deacon at State Tabernacle Church of God and a retired security guard.

Rogers was an assistant office manager at Tops and hid behind the counter of the service desk when the shooting started. When she called 911 and whispered to the dispatcher that the store was under attack the dispatcher hung up on her. That day marked the second time she survived a mass shooting.

The 142-page suit targets the parent companies of Google, Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, 4Chan, and Twitch for fostering and furthering white supremacist propaganda and rhetoric on their social platforms while also giving Payton Gendron an outlet to live stream the violent spree.

Gendron murdered 10 Black people and injured three others in a shooting rampage at the Tops supermarket in East Buffalo. Gendron, who was 18 at the time, pleaded guilty in November of that year to the 10 murders and a number of hate crime charges. He also became the first person in the state of New York to be charged with domestic terrorism motivated by hate, for which he also pleaded guilty. He was sentenced this past February to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Gendron publicized his plans to murder Black people on Discord months prior to the killings. He also live-streamed the attack on Twitch, which the suit states was instrumental in convincing him to execute the massacre. The plaintiffs also claim that YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram directed “Gendron to progressively more extreme and psychologically discordant content.”

“Gendron explicitly acknowledged that the racist, antisemitic, and violence-prompting material he encountered on social media caused his radicalization, motivated him to commit racial violence, and provided the training, equipment, and expertise to plan and implement the massacre of May 14, 2022,” the suit states.

Attorneys representing the families of the victims also released statements on how social media use propagated extremist views and ideologies that strongly instigated the shooter’s plans and actions.

“Gendron was motivated to commit his heinous crime by racist, antisemitic, and white supremacist propaganda fed to him by social media companies,” said Matthew P. Bergman, founding attorney of the Social Media Victims Law Center.

“These posts led him down a rabbit hole of increasingly radical sites, where he was indoctrinated in white supremacist replacement theory and violent accelerationism. This horrible crime was neither an accident nor coincidence, but rather the foreseeable result of social media companies’ intentional decision to maximize user engagement over public safety.”

“I and my law partner, Kristen Elmore-Garcia, have been working with the families of this senseless, racially motivated hate crime for the past year,” said attorney John V. Elmore. “Payton Gendron has pled guilty to these murders and is no longer a danger to society. However, the social media platforms that radicalized him, and the companies that armed him, must still be held accountable for their actions. Our goal, on behalf of our clients, is to make this community and our nation safer and prevent other mass shootings.”

The lawsuit also names RMA Armament, an Iowa-based body armor manufacturer, MEAN LLC (MEAN Arms), a custom gun parts manufacturer in Georgia, Vintage Firearms, a gun dealer in Endicott, New York, and the shooter’s parents, Paul and Paula Gendron.

The plaintiffs state that Vintage Firearms is also to blame because it sold Gendron the Bushmaster XM15-E2S he used in the attack. MEAN LLC is being named as a defendant for allegedly providing an accessible magazine lock that allowed Gendron to alter the weapon and circumvent NY’s high-capacity magazine ban.

As for RMA Armament, where the killer purchased his body armor, the suit states the manufacturer “knew or should have known permitting Payton Gendron to obtain their product would result in unreasonable danger due to the use of their product.”

New York State Attorney General Letitia James also filed a separate suit on Thursday against MEAN LLC for “aiding the illegal possession of assault weapons in New York.”

Attorney John Elmore, who represents the families in their extensive suit, remarked on James’ lawsuit on Thursday.

“It gives us confidence that our allegations and intuition and legal research is correct, and it gives us a lot more juice to know that the attorney general’s office is doing the same thing that we’re doing, and hopefully the litigation that we’re commencing and the attorney general’s office is commencing will complement each other,” he said.

James, alongside Gov. Kathy Hochul, also filed a report in October 2022 alleging that multiple social media outlets played major roles in facilitating the shooter’s radicalization and bear some responsibility for the massacre.

The report found that anonymous, largely unmoderated websites and platforms, like 4chan, allegedly influenced Gendron. It also said live-streaming platforms like Twitch were “weaponized” to publicize and encourage copycat attacks.

Both leaders called for federal and state reforms to combat online extremism and violence, including state legislation that would criminalize graphic images or videos created by a perpetrator of a homicide and penalize individuals who reshare or repost those same images or videos.

James also launched an investigation of some of those platforms in May.

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