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Supreme Court rejects lawsuit against Facebook for hosting terrorists

Algorithms don’t strip online legal protections

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit claiming Facebook provided “material support” to terrorists by hosting their content. It declined to hear Force v. Facebook, a case brought by the families of five Americans who were hurt or killed by Palestinian attacks in Israel. The suit had already been dealt a serious blow last year, strengthening a legal precedent against suing social media platforms over terrorist attacks.

The 2016 lawsuit Force v. Facebook argued that Facebook knowingly hosted accounts belonging to Hamas, which the US classifies as a terrorist organization. Websites generally can’t be sued for user-created content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but the complaint contended Facebook’s algorithm promoted terrorist content to people who liked similar pages or posts, saying that should reduce its immunity.

The Second Circuit appeals court found that logic unconvincing. It shot down the complaint last year, saying there was “no basis” for making Facebook liable because it arranged content with algorithms. Rather than being a unique property of Facebook’s recommendation system, displaying material that specific users want to click on “has been a fundamental result of publishing third‐party content on the Internet since its beginning.” The Supreme Court didn’t comment on why it rejected the case, but it let that ruling stand. It’s previously declined to hear a harassment-related lawsuit against Grindr that hinged on Section 230 as well as a case involving defamatory Yelp reviews.

Force v. Facebook was one of many lawsuits against social media platforms for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda or playing a role in violent attacks. These suits have been almost universally unsuccessful — including one case brought by the families of Pulse nightclub shooting victims and several related to ISIS terrorism. The rulings don’t all invoke Section 230, but it’s one of social media companies’ key defenses, and today’s rejection preserves its legal heft.