After Wisconsin unrest over Jacob Blake's shooting by police turned deadly last month, a new lawsuit filed by witnesses and loved ones of victims claims Facebook provided an outlet for groups to "organize and further their conspiracy" ahead of the shootings.
The suit - which also names, the so-called "Kenosha Guard," its commander Kevin Mathewson, and 17-year-old alleged gunman Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged with the fatal shootings of two protesters during unrest in Kenosha - claims Facebook failed to delete pages and posts by the Kenosha Guard, which called for armed civilians to enter Kenosha amid the protests that erupted after police shot Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times, leaving him paralyzed.
The plaintiffs, citing a Buzzfeed story, argue that Facebook received more than 400 complaints about the post but that the company's content moderators conducted several reviews and decided the post didn't violate Facebook's anti-violence policies. The Kenosha Guard removed its post the day after the shootings and Facebook took down the militia group's entire page later that day, Buzzfeed reported.
"Despite over 400 reports of the Kenosha Guard’s event page and its call to arms, as well as the violent rhetoric throughout, Facebook failed to remove the page from its site until after several deaths, injuries, and extensive harassment occurred," the lawsuit states. "This shirking of responsibility is not the first time Facebook’s failure to act has resulted in real-world injuries."
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company made a mistake in not removing the page of the militia group.
The page for the “Kenosha Guard” violated Facebook’s policies and had been flagged by “a bunch of people,” Zuckerberg said in a video posted on Facebook.
"It was only days after Plaintiffs and protestors were forced to flee in terror and watch their friends and loved ones die that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a public apology for what he called an “operational mistake.” If we are to adopt the CEO’s highly sanitized phrase, this 'mistake' empowered right wing militias to inflict extreme violence and deprive Plaintiffs and protestors of their rights," the suit states.
The lawsuit filed by the partner of one of the slain men, two protesters and a journalist warns that militias will continue to use Facebook to incite violence if President Donald Trump loses the Nov. 3 election but refuses to leave office. The suit seeks a court order that would force the social media giant to remove posts calling for violence as well as posts by militia groups and hate groups.
It also seeks unspecified damages for the plaintiffs, who say they were traumatized by their interactions with the armed men who turned up at the protests over the Aug. 23 shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white Kenosha police officer. The officer shot Blake seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Cellphone video of the shooting sparked several nights of protests and unrest, leading the governor to call in the National Guard.
“Facebook's inaction led to the death of two protesters, in addition to the harm suffered by Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit states. “The enabling and empowering of militias to conspire with its platform and tools allows white supremacist groups to recruit, organize, and thrive, while Facebook continues to profit from their activities, and those who fight for social justice continue to die.”
The plaintiffs include Hannah Gittings, who describes herself as Huber's life partner. She said she watched Huber die and suffered threats and insults from members of the Kenosha Guard and the Boogaloo Bois, an anti-government extremist group. Some of them pointed their guns at her, the lawsuit alleges.
Another plaintiff, Christopher McNeal, is Black and was confronted, commanded, assaulted and harassed by militia, according to the lawsuit. A third plaintiff, a Black woman named Carmen Palmer, says she traveled to the protest with her children and that militia members threatened her, sprayed her with pepper spray and slashed her group's tires. The fourth plaintiff is Nathan Peet, a freelance journalist who says he tried to help Rosenbaum after he was shot but that his efforts were hampered by militia who “corralled” protesters following the shooting.
“The planning and preparation exhibited in this (Kenosha Guard) post led to Plaintiffs and other protesters being terrorized, assaulted, harassed, and placed in so much fear when facing the business end of military grade assault rifles that they determined it was too dangerous to continue to protest,” the lawsuit said.
For months, the nationwide protests against racial injustice and COVID-19 lockdown orders have attracted all manner of extremists using online platforms to plan, coordinate and drum up support for their activities.
Facebook, Discord and other mainstream internet services have banned accounts linked to anti-government extremists, but the recent protests in Kenosha and elsewhere illustrate how easy it can be for them to work around these digital roadblocks.
On June 30, Facebook announced that it had removed hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages and groups linked to the anti-government “boogaloo” movement, which was also named in the Wisconsin lawsuit along with member Ryan Balch.
Boogaloo supporters, who use the loose movement’s name as a slang term for a second civil war or collapse of civilization, frequently show up at protests armed with rifles and wearing Hawaiian shirts under body armor.
To avoid the ban, some boogaloo groups relaunched pages under innocuous sounding names. A day before the Kenosha protest shooting, a post on a private Facebook group with more than 2,000 members called “CNN Journalist Support Group” said “bois of the movement” would be “making their presence felt” in the city, wearing “regular clothes” or combat apparel instead of “luau” shirts.
“These are well known bois who no longer can post to social media due to the purge,” said the post, according to a screenshot collected by the Tech Transparency Project, a research initiative of the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability.
Balch, an Army veteran who spent time with Rittenhouse on the night of the shooting, said as many as 32 boogaloo adherents were in Kenosha that day. Balch described himself as a “Boog Boi” in a series of Facebook messages to the Chicago Sun-Times, but he said Rittenhouse had no connection to the boogaloo movement.
“Agitators did seem to focus on him because he seemed like an easier target than the rest of us,” Balch said, according to the newspaper.
The lawsuit states Rittenhouse answered the calls to arms posted by groups like the Kenosha Guard and Boogaloo, though it remains unclear if he was associated with either group.
Rittenhouse, of Antioch, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide, among others, following the shooting.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.