Manchester bombing renews Raleigh family’s resolve to fight Twitter and ISIS in court

Olivia Campbell's mother Charlotte Campbell, center and stepfather Paul Hodgson, foreground, pay tribute to the victims of the explosion outside Manchester Arena, at St Ann's Square in central Manchester, England, Thursday, May 25. Olivia Campbell, 15, was one of 22 killed by a terrorist bomb after an Ariana Grande concert.
Olivia Campbell's mother Charlotte Campbell, center and stepfather Paul Hodgson, foreground, pay tribute to the victims of the explosion outside Manchester Arena, at St Ann's Square in central Manchester, England, Thursday, May 25. Olivia Campbell, 15, was one of 22 killed by a terrorist bomb after an Ariana Grande concert. AP

Editor’s Note: Since publication, the N&O has learned that passages from this story were taken in large part or in whole from the following stories without attribution: “Judge tosses suit accusing Twitter of providing material support to ISIS” by Ars Technica, and “Former Ambassador Cain’s daughter files lawsuit against Twitter” and “Two months after Cain lawsuit, Twitter discloses terrorism suspensions,” both by the Triangle Business Journal. This is a violation of our standards. We apologize to our readers.

When the news of the Manchester bombing broke earlier this week, Jim Cain, a former U.S. ambassador and president of the Carolina Hurricanes, and his family in Raleigh had a keen sense of the anguish and loss to follow for those whose live were ever changed by the terror attack.

In March 2016, Cain’s daughter, Cameron, became a widow after a similar terror attack at the airport in Brussels, Belgium.

Her husband, Alexander Pinczowski, and his sister Sascha were among the 32 people killed when three coordinated suicide bombings occurred – at the Brussels airport in Zaventern and at the Maalbeek metro station in central Brussels.

Cameron Cain and others were “glued to CNN, watching the coverage,” her father said Thursday. “She does what she always does, she jumped on her laptop and tried to find out if there were any American connections.”

Though Ariana Grande, the pop singer who performed at the 21,000-seat arena, is from the United States, no Americans have been listed among the 22 dead. But the Cains have focused on a common theme emerging from the attack in England.

“The early indications are that the same cell responsible for Brussels and Paris also did this,” Cain said.

Another common theme is that investigators are combing social media sites, such as Twitter, for clues to the attack and the potential for others.

That resonates with the Cains. Cameron Cain sued the social media giant in January with the family of a victim of the 2015 terror attack in Paris.

In the complaint, filed first in New York and later transferred to California federal courts, Cain and the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a California college student at the time of her death, accuse Twitter of aiding ISIS by allowing the terrorist organization to use its social media channels to recruit members and coordinate attacks.

The lawsuit, one of several similar ones filed recently against social media companies in the war on ISIS, accuses Twitter of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act.

What is Twitter’s role?

Jim Cain spoke about his daughter’s lawsuit earlier this month at a panel discussion on terrorism and security during a daylong conference, “Foreign Policy and Trade Challenges in the Age of Trump,” held by the John William Pope Foundation and Jesse Helms Center.

“Twitter’s social media platform and services provide tremendous utility and value to ISIS as a tool to connect its members and to facilitate the terrorist group’s ability to communicate, recruit members, plan and carry out attacks, and strike fear in its enemies,” the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit further contends that “ISIS used Twitter to specifically threaten France and Belgium” and to “celebrate smaller attacks” that led to the major ones. The suit argues that Twitter helped “transform the operational leader of the Paris attack into a ‘celebrity’ among jihadi terrorists in the year leading up to the Paris attack via Twitter-distributed magazine articles and videos featuring his ISIS exploits in Syria, France and Belgium.”

Cain and Gonzalez’s family said in the lawsuit they had identified the Twitter accounts of the operational leader of the Paris attack, as well as of the bomb-maker behind explosive devices deployed in Paris and Brussels.

“For years, ISIS, its leaders, spokesmen, and members openly maintained and used official Twitter accounts with little or no interference,” the lawsuit contends.

Twitter has maintained that it condemns the use of it services to promote terrorism.

“This type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service,” according to a statement issued by the San Francisco-based company shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

In 2016, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick dismissed a lawsuit filed against Twitter by the widow of an American killed in Jordan.

The judge agreed with Twitter that it was protected from liability as a publisher of content by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

‘Tenuous at best’

In the judge’s order granting Twitter’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, he called the attempts to connect the Jordan shooting with an action taken by Twitter “tenuous at best,” noting that the allegations in that lawsuit did not show “proximate causation between Twitter’s provision of accounts to ISIS and the deaths of the US contractors who had been killed in Jordan.”

But to get around that provision of the Communications Decency Act, those seeking damages have also argued that Twitter is not only a publishing platform but also provides a direct messaging service that ISIS has used to privately recruit more terrorists.

Twitter revealed in March that, during the last six months of 2016, the social media company suspended 377,000 accounts for what it characterized as promoting terrorism.

According to Twitter, only 2 percent of the 2016 terrorism-related suspensions came at the request of a government agency. The vast majority, nearly three-fourths, were found through its own internal spam detection tools, the company said.

Though investigators are not far enough along in their probe to provide a detailed report about what led Salman Abedi to the Manchester arena earlier this week, ISIS supporters celebrated on social media after the deadly blast at the end of the Ariana Grande concert.

International media outlets reported that Twitter accounts affiliated with the terror group used hashtags that not only included celebratory messages but also encouraged so-called “lone-wolf” attacks elsewhere.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1