Slain officer's sister says Facebook should be held liable for her brother's death

·7 min read

Two anti-government extremists have been charged with the shooting death of Angela Underwood Jacobs' brother. But she says Facebook is also responsible.

Jacobs has filed a lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook, claiming that the platform's recommendation algorithms led the alleged killers toward extremist content, suggested they join the same group, and gave them a chance to coordinate their deadly actions online. The suit challenges a controversial 26-year-old law that protects social media companies from liability for user posts.

Speaking exclusively with CBS Morning's co-anchor Tony Dokoupil, Underwood Jacobs said her brother, federal Officer Pat Underwood, would still be alive today if it wasn't for Facebook.

Federal Officer Pat Underwood / Credit: Angela Underwood Jacobs
Federal Officer Pat Underwood / Credit: Angela Underwood Jacobs

"They didn't necessarily pull the trigger but what they did do is they had the information that could've stopped all of this and they sat on it," Underwood Jacobs said. "I feel that they are liable."

According to the criminal complaint, Robert Justus Jr., and Steven Carrillo met on Facebook and discussed plans to use social justice protests in Oakland, California, surrounding the death of George Floyd as a cover for an anti-government attack.

The pair met in person after coordinating on a Facebook group and drove to a federal courthouse that Underwood was guarding at the time, the criminal complaint said. Justus allegedly drove a white van and pulled over outside the courthouse while Carrillo opened fire, killing Underwood, and wounding another officer. Carrillo was charged with murder and attempted murder and Justus was charged with aiding and abetting murder. Both men have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to face trial next year.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed earlier this month, Underwood Jacobs claims that Justus and Carrillo, who lived more than 50 miles apart, "had never met in person." The lawsuit alleges that two "had no reason to cross" paths until a Facebook group brought them together. The suit claims Facebook recommended Justus "join groups dedicated to promoting the Boogaloo movement."

The Boogaloo movement is a far-right extremist network that calls for a second Civil War and promotes anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric. In 2020, as social justice protests surrounding the death of George Floyd sparked across the country, members of the Boogaloo movement increasingly attended the protests and often attempted to capitalize on the conditions to create chaos and incite violence.

On the morning of May 28, 2020, a day before Pat Underwood was killed, Carrillo wrote in a Facebook group, "It's on our coast now, this needs to be nationwide. It's a great opportunity to target the specialty soup bois. Keep that energy going." The message was followed by two fire emojis and a link to a YouTube video showing a large crowd violently attacking police cars, according to the criminal complaint.

The FBI says "soup bois" is a reference members of the Boogaloo movement use to discuss federal law enforcement agencies that are colloquially referred to as "alphabet soup" agencies. Minutes after Carrillo's post in the Facebook group calling on members to target federal law enforcement officials, Justus commented saying "Let's boogie."

The next day Carrillo posted on the Facebook group again, telling members to "think outside the box" and "use" the "anger" of protestors in downtown Oakland "to fuel our fire." He wrote "we have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage," according to the criminal complaint. Justus later told the FBI that he and Carrillo arranged to meet in person that day and agreed to ride together to the protests that were taking place in Oakland.

Underwood Jacobs told CBS News that her brother would be alive "if Facebook had acted with the information that they had privy to, that no one else had," adding, "they choose not to hand over the information to authorities."

"But they didn't use the word 'kill.' There was some coded language," Dokoupil pointed out to her lawyer, Ted Leopold. "If Facebook were monitoring that, what makes you comfortable with them determining what is just people talking, and what is a crime?"

"They know, through their actions of bringing these extremist groups together, that bad things are going to happen," Leopold answered. "And they know through their own algorithms that there are code words that these groups use."

Meta often points out that it has 40,000 employees working on safety issues and that it spent $5 billion tackling security issues in 2021. The company recently said that in the lead up to the 2020 election it expanded policies to remove militia groups and prevent them from organizing on the platform.

In June of 2020, a month after Underwood was killed, Meta banned the Boogaloo movement and designated the group as a dangerous US-based anti-government network. At the time, the social media network said it had regularly removed Boogaloo content when it identified a clear call for violence. The company said it also limited the distribution of pages and groups referring to the movement by removing them from the recommendations users saw.

"We've banned more than 1,000 militarized social movements from our platforms and work closely with experts to address the broader issue of internet radicalization," a Meta spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News, adding that Underwood Jacobs' claims "are without legal basis."

Jacobs' lawyer Leopold, from the firm Cohen Milstein, acknowledged that a lawsuit of this kind has never succeeded against social media companies because of "Section 230."

Section 230 is part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that gives online platforms immunity from content that users post on the site. Republicans, Democrats, and social media companies, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg have called for reforms to the law in recent months.

In a written testimony for a March 2021 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce, Zuckerberg said social media platforms should have to earn their Section 230 protections. "Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it," Zuckerberg said

"Platforms should not be held liable if a particular piece of content evades its detection—that would be impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day—but they should be required to have adequate systems in place to address unlawful content," he added.

While some liberal lawmakers argue Section 230 gives platforms like Facebook a free pass to ignore dissemination of misinformation, conservatives claim the law allows social media companies to judge what violates their terms of service and censor conservative viewpoints.

Leopold argues that protections from Section 230 should no longer apply to Facebook.

"Facebook provided the content that allowed these groups to get together," Leopold said in an interview with CBS News, "they provided the avenue, the framework, and the systems that brought these people together."

He added that Justus and Carrillo "decided on Facebook where to meet, how to get it done, and what to do."

Some policy experts say they are hopeful that lawmakers will find a solution to reform Section 230 after years of debate and conversation to understand the problem.

"You can sue Facebook all you want, but they'll say, 'Look, I mean, we're sorry, but you know there's collateral damage that occurs. We try our best.' And they do indeed try their best," Vasant Dhar, professor of Information Systems at NYU and host of the podcast Brave New World, told CBS News. "But at the end of the day if you sue them there is that shield, which protects them."

Dhar said he believes that Zuckerberg indeed wants reforms to Section 230 but added that his proposal, which calls for platforms to earn their protections, while "quite clever," is not enough.

"He wants the bar to be set relatively low," Dhar said. "The problem with that is that he's very deftly avoiding the real issue, which is, 'I'm not gonna tell you how we operate and what our algorithms do all day. That's our secret sauce.'"

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