Police and Law Enforcement

Dallas cop sues social media companies for allegedly helping influence police shooter

Markers litter the sidewalk as FBI investigators look over the crime scene in Dallas, Texas, U.S. July 8, 2016 following a Thursday night shooting incident that killed five police officers.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX2KE0D

Markers litter the sidewalk as FBI investigators look over the crime scene in Dallas, Texas, U.S. July 8, 2016 following a Thursday night shooting incident that killed five police officers. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX2KE0D

Lawyers for a Dallas police officer filed a federal civil suit late Tuesday against Twitter, Facebook and Google for allegedly providing “material support” to the Palestinian militant group Hamas and purportedly helping radicalize Micah Johnson, the Army veteran who killed five police officers and wounded nine others in an ambush last July.

In a complaint filed in the Northern District of California, Dallas Police Sgt. Demetrick Pennie argued that the three social media platforms “knowingly and recklessly provided the terrorist group HAMAS with accounts to use its social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda.”

“We want to hold these companies accountable for allowing terrorists to use their sites as an instrument to conduct terrorist operations,” Pennie’s lawyer, Keith Altman, told FoxNews.com. “Google, Facebook and Twitter profit from terrorist postings and create new content when they combine postings with advertisements targeted at specific viewers.”

Johnson, a 25-year-old Army Reserve Afghan War veteran and Black Nationalist, carried out an “ambush-style” attack on Dallas law enforcement during a protest in Texas over the recent police-related killings of two African-American men. Johnson was eventually killed by a robot-delivered bomb.

“It was unreal,” Pennie, who was good friends with two of the officers killed, told FoxNews.com. “Seeing guys shot like that, I just can’t shake it.”

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While he has not been linked to any foreign terror organization, Johnson did visit and like numerous websites dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party – all of whom have sympathized with the Palestinian cause.

“The New Black Panther Party and other black separatist groups are directly linking themselves to Palestian groups and they are sharing this stuff on Facebook,” Pennie, who is also the president of the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and a 17-year law enforcement veteran, told FoxNews.com.

Pennie added that any money he is awarded from the lawsuit – or a similar one he has filed against Black Lives Matter - would go directly to his foundation.

The question of whether or not Hamas’ social media feeds had any influence on Johnson – either directly or indirectly – is something that the federal court will have to decide, but what is not in question is the frequency that companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google have been hit with lawsuits from survivors or families of the victims of domestic and international terror attacks.

“There seems to be a spate of these cases recently and it’s probably because there have been recently a spate of these tragedies,” Matt Bartholomew, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law, told FoxNews.com.

Hamas, along with terror groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, maintain an active presence on both Facebook and Twitter as a way to recruit and radicalize followers and also rely heavily on the Google-owned YouTube to post propaganda, press releases and even executions.

At the heart of Pennie’s lawsuit – and a similar one filed by the families of victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June – is the interpretation of a provision tucked deep inside the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 called Section 230.

The language of Section 230 states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." In layman’s terms, this basically means that sites like Facebook or YouTube are not liable for what their users post on their sites.

Section 230 of the CDA has protected social media sites in the past, but some lawyers and social media experts have begun to argue sites like Facebook may be violating the provision with their heavily-guarded algorithms. Despite these algorithms having come under fire before – from how Facebook curated its Trending Topics to accusations that YouTube was censoring people – these recent lawsuits allege something much more nefarious behind one of the tech world’s most secretive processes.

“There are so many questions that need be answered by these social media companies,” Eric Feinberg of the cyber security and intelligence firm GIPEC told FoxNews.com. “How good are they at vetting their content? Why aren’t they sharing this information with law enforcement? They need to either fix these problems internally or hire a third party to do it for them.”

Facebook and Twitter argue that they are doing everything they can to prevent terror groups from using their sites, but experts contend the companies are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issue as the web giants have voiced willingness to aid in the fight but have been less than transparent when it comes to sharing proprietary information like their algorithms.

When asked to comment on this story, a representative from Twitter emailed FoxNews.com the company’s policy prohibiting the promotion of terrorism. A spokesperson from Facebook said the company is “committed to providing a service where people feel safe when using Facebook.”

“Our Community Standards make clear that there is no place on Facebook for groups that engage in terrorist activity or for content that expresses support for such activity, and we take swift action to remove this content when it’s reported to us,” the spokesperson said in an email to FoxNews.com.

A spokesman for Google cited a statement last month saying that Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and You Tube were coming together to curb the spread of terrorist content. This included creating a shared industry database of unique digital "fingerprints" related to terrorism.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also sat down with the Dallas Police Department Monday night to discuss the role of social media and how it’s changing the dynamics of law enforcement following the mass shooting.

Experts say, however, that until a judge sides with the plaintiffs in one of these cases, social media companies will not have to pay a dime, but they also warn that should the interpretation of Section 230 change, there could be a windfall of lawsuits against these companies.

“We’re now seeing some of these cases all at once but until a court says under Section 230 these companies are liable then nothing will happen,” Bartholomew said. “But once there is a chink in the armor, there will be an avalanche.”