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Family of Slain Journalist Claims Facebook Exploited Tragedy for Profit

October 12, 2021 by Victoria Turner
Alison Parker, the Virginia TV news reporter shot and killed on live television in 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Imagine knowing your daughter’s moment of death has been immortalized in a video online. Now imagine that it keeps popping up over and over again on Facebook, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube for six years and counting, despite your family’s repeated requests for its removal. 

That is what Andy Parker, father of slain journalist Alison Parker, has experienced since that tragic day in 2015 when his daughter was shot while on camera. Tuesday, Parker filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that the social media platform is profiting from this violent loss. He made the announcement at a press conference at the National Press Club. 

“Posting content, violent content, and murder on social media is not free speech. It’s savagery,” the grieving father said.

Alison and her cameraman, Adam Ward, were shot during a live interview in Roanoke, Virginia, by a former CBS-affiliate WDBJ-TV colleague, Vester Lee Flanagan II. Flanagan posted the video on Twitter and Facebook. Shortly thereafter, his accounts were removed but the video is still easily accessible on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. 

“Facebook and Instagram lie to the government when they claim they abide by the terms of service. They lie to consumers when they claim that they do not post violent and harmful content,” alleged Georgetown University Law Center Civil Rights Clinic’s Aderson Francois, who is representing Parker in his complaint. They also lie, he added, when they say they will take down content depicting a loved one’s death.

In this Jan. 29, 2016 photo, Andy Parker and his wife, Barbara, listen as then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAulliffe announces a compromise on a set of gun bills at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The only course of action Parker could take against the “video of [the] execution” of his daughter was to file an FTC complaint.

But aside from fining the companies, there is not much the FTC can actually do, Francois explained, as the companies are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that acts as a liability shield for social media platforms against content posted by third party users. This is why, along with Andy Parker, the Coalition for a Safer Web is advocating for its reform. 

“If you took this Section 230 immunity away … immediately, they probably [would] take these videos down,” said Eric Feinberg, vice president of the coalition. 

According to Feinberg, the coalition’s president, Marc Ginsburg, reached out to Facebook’s Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Sandberg to remove the video in February 2020 – the same month Parker filed an FTC complaint against Google. 

Sandberg responded, thanking Marc for flagging the video. The video is still up. Despite having the technology and ability to do so, Feinberg said, Facebook is asking the public and those “outside of their infrastructure” to police and report. Feinberg claimed he reported half a dozen videos on Oct. 5 and 6 using Facebook’s system, but they are still up today. And Alison’s murder is still up six years later. 

Facebook has the artificial intelligence to promote a healthier use of the social media platform to “stop this shameful practice” of using a tragedy like Alison’s murder as entertainment for profit, Parker claimed pointing to last week’s whistleblower testimony and documents before Congress as collaborative proof.

“But instead, their algorithms are not designed to make using Facebook as helpful or as wholesome as possible. They’re designed to keep users hooked,” Parker accused the platform. 

Francois also represents Parker in his pending complaint against Google. Parker, however, said the FTC has been silent regarding the Google complaint and hopes that the new Democratic leadership at the Commission will “walk the walk.” 

This latest lawsuit, Parker said, is an “incremental step” in sending a message to Congress as fining “each a billion dollars…is chump change” for these tech giants. But if the FTC does its job, he added, then maybe Congress will follow suit. 

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