A growing number of lawsuits claim that social media companies like Meta should be liable under product liability law theory for designing products in a harmful, dangerous, or addictive manner.

These recent lawsuits aim to circumvent the protection recently afforded social media giants through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which inoculates companies from the harmful content posted by users on their platforms. Instead, product liability theory focuses on design and manufacturing defects.

Dark Patterns

At issue in recent litigation against social media companies is the topic of “dark patterns.” Dark patterns are programming and design choices, such as interfaces and user experiences, that are implemented through social media and gaming platforms to cause users to make unintended, unwilling, and potentially harmful decisions regarding the processing of their data.

Common goals for dark pattern design are convincing users to divulge sensitive data; keeping users playing games, watching streams, or scrolling feeds for longer; and enticing users to recruit friends to play or join. These goals are met through tactics like visual misdirection, confusing language, hidden alternatives, ranking and voting, and fake urgency.

Current Litigation

In the case of Spence v. Facebook Platform, the plaintiff alleges that Instagram’s design contains certain features that are defective and injurious.. This case follows a disclosure known as the “Facebook Papers” which revealed that Meta, Facebook’s parent company, knew its social media products were highly addictive and harmful for teenage girls. According to a whistleblower, the company was aware that the use of its products could contribute to issues like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicide.

In Naomi Charles v. Meta, a plaintiff brought a class action suit against Meta, claiming she had used the social media giant’s products since she was a minor and that algorithms developed by Meta, designed to keep users online, are highly addictive and damaging to minors.

Looking Forward

Most of the product liability-related suits against social media companies are ongoing, so it’s hard to speculate how they will resolve. The product liability theory gained traction in the Ninth District after a lower court’s decision dismissing the Lemmon v. Snap case was reversed. That case involved two boys who died in a high-speed car crash after using Snapchat to record their driving. Plaintiffs alleged that because Snapchat’s design encouraged their dangerous speeding, the company’s design was negligent and it should be held accountable for the minors’ deaths. After a lower court dismissed the case, stating Snapchat had immunity under Section 230, the Ninth District disagreed, reversing and remanding.

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