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Social Media Victims Law Center files suit against social media giants for the race-driven anguish suffered by one small-town family
Lawsuit alleges that YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok social media products pushed dangerous race- and gender-based content to the Johnson children
PEORIA, ILL. – AUGUST 2, 2022 – The Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), a legal resource for parents of children harmed by social media addiction and abuse, announced that it has filed suit on behalf of Damian Johnson, a single father living in Canton, Ill., and his three children against YouTube, LLC, Meta Platforms, Inc.’s Facebook and Instagram, Snap, Inc. and TikTok, Inc. alleging that their algorithms purposely pushed dangerous race- and gender-based content to his children.
The lawsuit alleges that Johnson’s youngest son, KLJ, nearly killed himself when he attempted the “I Killed Myself Prank” popularized on YouTube, resulting in lifelong disabilities and personality changes; while accusing Instagram and TikTok of using racial profiling algorithms which would direct his oldest son, JAJ, to gun and gang-themed content, and his underaged daughter, KAJ, to receive countless messages from strangers offering her money in exchange for sex and asking her to send sexually explicit photos and videos of herself.
The lawsuit, which was filed in The Central District of Illinois (Case: 1:22-cv-01260-MMM-JEH # 1), alleges that these social media products drove his children into depression, addiction and other mental health disorders. Further, the products’ manufacturers did not take reasonable, actionable steps to prevent their products from deliberately identifying and pushing sexual, violent, and disturbing content to his children – and other minors – product defects, Johnson alleges, are known to these social media companies.
This is the first time SMVLC has filed a lawsuit against YouTube.
“Each of these social media companies have made billions of dollars by intentionally designing dangerous products that they know are harmful to minors,” said Matthew P. Bergman, founding attorney of SMVLC. “Not only are they pushing their dangerous content to minors but their discriminatory, racially-profiling algorithm disproportionately directs violent and sexual content to African Americans and other minority groups.”
Johnson’s youngest son, KLJ, nearly died while reenacting YouTube’s “I Killed Myself Prank.” Without his father’s knowledge or consent, KLJ opened his first YouTube account when he was 10 and quickly became addicted. When his father would try to restrict his access by taking away phones and tablets, he would find other devices capable of playing YouTube videos, including the family television and even school-issued devices.
While KLJ began to suffer from mental health issues driven by his social media addiction, including sleep deprivation and anxiety, he suffered his worst harm when he tried YouTube’s “I Killed Myself Prank.” The “I Killed Myself Prank” videos are ones involving individuals (often children) pretending to kill themselves and filming as a family member finds them. But for the algorithmic discrimination contained in the YouTube product, KLJ would not have been targeted with such disproportionately dangerous and harmful content.
Thinking it would be funny to prank his twin sister and receive a lot of likes, he tried to make it look like he hung himself in the closet. A short time later, his sister walked into his room and found KLJ hanging. She screamed for help, and while KLJ’s father held him up, his older brother JAJ cut him down with a knife.
KLJ was rushed to Graham Hospital in Canton and then Life Flighted to OSF Saint Francis in Peoria, where he was in a coma for three days. Though he was able to return home after 10 days in the hospital, he suffered a hypoxic brain injury and a pinhole bleed. His personality and ability to learn changed, and though there is hope of a full recovery because he is still young, he may never be the same. He went from a helpful and good-natured kid to someone who is moody, angry and depressed.
When KAJ was less than 10 years old, she opened her first Facebook account, which she did without her father’s knowledge or consent. Over time, KAJ opened multiple Facebook accounts to the point where she could not recall usernames or passwords. She would often open an account, without anyone’s knowledge or consent, lose the password, and simply open another to obtain access to the Facebook product and features.
KAJ eventually opened TikTok accounts, as well as several Snapchat and Instagram accounts, also without her father’s knowledge and consent. She began using all four social media products every chance she got, and her addiction to these social media products worsened.
KAJ received countless direct messages from strangers offering her money in exchange for sex and asking her to send sexually explicit photos and videos of herself. But for the algorithmic discrimination contained in all three of the social media products at issue, including recommendation systems as well as content promotion and display systems, KAJ would not have been targeted and overwhelmed by disproportionately violent, sexual, and other harmful content.
These products directed users to KAJ who were not her friends, and who would exploit, bully, or abuse her. She received messages from strangers offering her money for sexual content, and “dick pics” from adult men whom she did not know.
Damian Johnson’s oldest son, JAJ, was a smart and confident child, always outgoing and making others laugh. He opened his first YouTube account at age 11 and gradually became addicted to YouTube’s social media product and he spent increasing amounts of time watching YouTube videos, the majority of which were videos YouTube selected and/or directed for him.
JAJ has no interest in guns or gangs, yet Instagram and TikTok would often direct him to gun and gang-themed content. The suit alleges that Meta, YouTube and TikTok’s algorithms pushed disproportionately violent and sexual content to African American users, like JAJ. JAJ began to get in trouble at home and at school and has suffered mental harms as a result.
About the Social Media Victims Law Center
The Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), socialmediavictims.org, was founded in 2021 to hold social media companies legally accountable for the harm they inflict on vulnerable users. SMVLC seeks to apply principles of product liability to force social media companies to elevate consumer safety to the forefront of its economic analysis and design safer platforms to protect users from foreseeable harm.
About Matthew P. Bergman
Matthew P. Bergman is an attorney, law professor, philanthropist and community activist who has recovered over $1 billion on behalf of his clients. He is the founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center and Bergman Draper Oslund Udo law firm; a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School; and serves on the board of directors of nonprofit institutions in higher education, national security, civil rights, worker protection and the arts.
If your child or young family member has suffered from serious depression, chronic eating disorder, hospitalization, sexual exploitation, self-harm, or suicide as a result of their social media use, speak to us today for a no-cost legal consultation.