IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Meta, Russian oligarch sued over Charleston church massacre

Family members of the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney are suing Facebook’s parent company and “Putin’s chef,” claiming they helped radicalize the killer.


In the current age of increased online radicalization and political violence, civil and criminal litigation have and can serve as deterrents for copycats and those who may aid and abet them. 

In that light, the wife and the daughter of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was among nine people killed by a white supremacist in 2015 at a Black church in South Carolina, are suing Meta and a Russian oligarch, claiming they played a role in radicalizing the killer.

The shooter murdered the churchgoers in a hate crime at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after being invited in for Bible study.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks damages from Facebook’s parent company and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch once charged with interfering in U.S. politics. Prigozhin’s Kremlin-based Internet Research Agency was found to have pumped racist and deceptive ads onto Americans’ Facebook pages in 2015 and 2016 in an effort to sow divisions.

A bipartisan Senate report confirmed the Russian agency’s role leading the disinformation operation, which the Senate panel said aimed to suppress the Black vote, sow racial divisions and help Donald Trump win the White House. Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef,” was among several Russians charged by the Justice Department in 2018 with interfering in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election. But officials mysteriously dropped the criminal prosecution in 2020

The Pinckney family’s lawsuit aims to hold Prigozhin and one of his key tools, Facebook, accountable for the racist views they helped spread. (Neither Meta nor Prigozhin appear to have publicly commented on the lawsuit as of Friday afternoon.)

“Because the algorithms recommend that susceptible users join extremist groups, where users are conditioned to post even more inflammatory and divisive content, Facebook is naturally open to exploitation by white supremacist groups and racial hate-mongerers,” the lawsuit says. 

“Jennifer Pinckney and her teenage daughter bring this action to obtain some degree of justice from these Defendants and to reassure all African Americans living in the United States that they are entitled to the constitutional protections afforded to all of our citizens regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity,” the suit says.

Institutional failures abound in the 2015 massacre by a gunman who shared white nationalist screeds online and openly vowed to start a race war

Survivors and relatives of victims previously agreed on a multimillion-dollar settlement with the Department of Justice over the failure of the FBI’s background check system to prevent a firearms dealer from selling the killer what would ultimately be the murder weapon.

Meanwhile, former Facebook employees and whistleblowers, such as Frances Haugen, have alleged that company executives refused to take proper steps to stem the tide of manipulative and violent posts that were known to radicalize users. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for what it’s worth, has denied Haugen’s claims that Facebook prioritizes profits over users’ safety.

So the Pinckney family’s lawsuit is one to keep an eye on. If successful, it could exact damages from Facebook’s parent company while also forcing Meta to take more steps to combat online hate speech out of fear of more litigation.