The sister of a federal officer allegedly killed by a member of a domestic extremist movement is suing Facebook, charging that the platform’s recommendation system played a part in the radicalization of the people who are accused of carrying out the shooting.

Federal law enforcement officials allege that Dave Patrick Underwood, a Department of Homeland Security officer, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting by Steven Carrillo in May 2020 while Underwood was standing watch outside the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, California. One week later, Carrillo was arrested after an alleged shootout with Santa Cruz County police officers that left Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller dead.

According to Facebook messages obtained by federal prosecutors, Carrillo met Robert Alvin Justus Jr., the driver of the vehicle from which he is alleged to have opened fire on Underwood, through Facebook groups for the Boogaloo movement, which first gained traction in early 2020 and espoused extreme anti-government views. 

Both Carrillo and Justus have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Carrillo’s lawyer also said his client had suffered a traumatic brain injury before the shootings and suffered personal family loss.

Underwood’s sister, Angela Underwood Jacobs, filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Court on Thursday morning, alleging “extreme pain and suffering endured by Dave Patrick Underwood from the time of the shooting until the time of his death” and “for his wrongful death.”

“Facebook bears responsibility for the murder of my brother. As the lawsuit alleges, Facebook knowingly promoted inflammatory and violent content and connected extremists who plotted and carried out the killing of my brother,” she said in a press release. “Facebook must be held responsible for the harm it has caused not just my family, but so many others, by promoting extremist content and building extremist groups on its platform.”

Carrillo telegraphed his attack in Boogaloo Facebook groups, which were allowed on the platform until a month after the attacks, and in private messages to Justus, according to a federal complaint.

In one Facebook group, Carrillo suggested taking advantage of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd to target federal police officers, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed by the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll on behalf of Underwood Jacobs, is asking for $25,000 in damages.

“The shooting was not a random act of violence,” the complaint reads. “It was the culmination of an extremist plot hatched and planned on Facebook by two men who Meta connected through Facebook’s groups infrastructure and its use of algorithms designed and intended to increase user engagement and, correspondingly, Meta’s profits.” (Meta is the rebranded parent company of Facebook.)

The lawsuit alleges Carrillo was part of a wide array of connected Boogaloo Facebook groups committed to violence against the federal government, loosely known as the “Boojie Bastards.” The lawsuit states this included three separate Facebook groups.

Social media companies have historically leaned heavily on Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which largely provides immunity for social media services like Facebook from legal liability for content posted to their platforms.

Ted Leopold, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said that the focus of the lawsuit is not about hosting content, but about Facebook’s boosting of the groups and infrastructure that brought Carrillo and Justus together, and to the Boogaloo movement.

“For lack of a better word, I think we have broken the code of what Facebook has done. They are an active participant, using algorithms, behind the curtain, to bring these types of individuals together,” he said. “That brings them well outside of the realm of 230 protection.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but it has previously pointed to its efforts to crack down on extremists groups on its platform. 

“We know we have a greater responsibility when we are amplifying or recommending content,” Tom Alison, Facebook’s vice president of engineering, said in a blog post March last year announcing changes to how it recommended groups. “As behaviors evolve on our platform, though, we recognize we need to do more.” nl

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