Reddit and YouTube Face Lawsuit Alleging Their Algorithms Served Buffalo Shooter Content That Prepared Him for the Attack

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Mar 22, 2024

A year after 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron live streamed his mass shooting that ended the lives of 10 black people at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, 20 survivors are trying to stop the algorithms that allegedly led to the tragic event.

Filed in 2023, the lawsuit claims that the algorithms on YouTube and Reddit radicalized Gendron, and prepared him for the attack.

The Survivors File a Lawsuit

The 25 survivors of the shooting in Buffalo allege that the sites’ algorithm helped radicalize Gendron by showing inflammatory and conspiratorial content.

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Gendron then used the sites to seek guidance on acquiring a weapon and body armor for the attack at the Tops grocery store.

The Lawsuit Blames the Algorithms

The lawsuit says that the shooter’s near-constant use of social media,” the algorithms’ continuing stream of videos to watch, and forums to explore in the months leading up to the attack in May 2022 exposed him to racist conspiracy.

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The exposure to certain content, coupled with a potential lack of media literacy, led to Gendron becoming radicalized to a dangerous extent.

The Potential Radicalization of the Algorithms

The lawsuit alleges that Gendron was not initially watching hateful and violent videos on YouTube, but rather, the site’s algorithm and autoplay functions directed him to them.

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On Reddit, people believe that the site’s algorithm helped the shooter discover online communities that served as echo chambers, offering him the “know-how and extremist encouragement he needed to commit the attack at Tops.”

The Power of Section 230

The lawsuit will test the limits of Section 230, a law that has protected internet platforms from lawsuits over content posted by the platform’s users for nearly three decades.

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The law protects users’ free speech and freedom of expression by shielding the intermediaries. “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,” (via Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Holding Social Media Companies Accountable

“For too long, social media companies have skirted accountability by hiding behind Section 230, claiming immunity from liability for content they distribute,” Everytown Law Executive Director Eric Tirschwell said in a statement.

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Tirschwell continued: “We must hold accountable every single bad actor that prepared and equipped the shooter to target and kill members of Buffalo’s Black community.”

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Are the Algorithms Defective Products? 

The Buffalo lawsuit seems to be sidestepping Section 230 by casting YouTube and Reddit’s algorithms as a “defective product.”

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If the court determines that these algorithms are “defective,” lawmakers could draft new laws to better protect users from the dangerous product.

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Reddit and YouTube Ask to Dismiss the Case

Reddit and YouTube asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit under Section 230. However, Judge Paula Feroleto rejected those requests.

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“While we disagree with today’s decision and will be appealing, we will continue to work with law enforcement, other platforms, and civil society to share intelligence and best practices,” said José Castañeda, a spokesperson for YouTube, to NPR.

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The Controversy Around YouTube’s and Reddit’s Algorithms

For years, critics have accused YouTube’s and Reddit’s algorithms of exerting greater control over the content users see, funneling them into filtered bubbles and leading to radicalization rabbit holes.

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Extremists, conspiracy theorists, and reactionaries target these sites as platforms for spreading information, despite their potential as sources of helpful tutorials and entertainment.

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Will YouTube and Reddit Change Their Algorithms? 

Spokespersons for Reddit and YouTube told NPR that their companies are investing in technology that would combat extremist and hateful content.

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“We are constantly evaluating ways to improve our detection and removal of this content, including through enhanced image-hashing systems, and we will continue to review the communities on our platform to ensure they are upholding our rules,” a Reddit spokesperson said.

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Google Is Making a Change

Google did take steps toward banning highly offensive “creators,” and announced an initiative to reduce recommending  “borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways,” (via Scientific American).

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However, other online platforms will need to make changes to their algorithms that have promoted controversial content that can create echo chambers of radicalization. While this could limit online engagement, it would lead to more diversity and promotion of alternative perspectives.

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The Future of the Lawsuit

The lawsuit will also proceed against several other defendants associated with the mass shooting in May 2022, including an arms manufacturer and the gun shop that sold the shooter his weapon.

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The lawsuit is currently in a stage at which parties can produce documentation and interviews with witnesses under oath to determine the outcome of the suit.

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