Holding Social Media Companies Accountable With Litigation – Featuring Steve Levin

By Susan Barfield
April 2, 2024

Susan Barfield (0:00:05) – Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining another leverage report episode. And I’m really excited today to be joined by Steve Levin. Steve is the founder and senior partner of Levin and Perconti. And, Steve, thank you so much for joining me today. And I know we’re going to be talking about the social media litigation. So again, thanks for taking time to connect with me.

Steve Levin (0:00:33) – Susan, thank you very much for having me. It’s delightful to appear on your show. I appreciate the opportunity.

Susan Barfield (0:00:40) – Yeah, absolutely. And before we dive into the social media litigation and the background, I really want to understand the why. Why did you go to law school? Why did you become an attorney? And who were there any early influences?

Steve Levin (0:00:58) – Well, that’s an interesting question. I come from a very interesting family background. My family was involved in the gambling business before it became legal, and we were always involved with lawyers because it was not legal. We were sort of on the wrong side of the law, although I might say now what was considered illegal then, everyone in America is doing in ten times the amount. So that brought me into contact with lawyers. I always admired lawyers, and I always admired persuasion and advocacy. So, interestingly, though, I started my career as a criminal defense lawyer because I loved the trial work. I loved persuading juries, and I really believed in the importance of the criminal defense system to protect our rights as Americans. However, the work was hard. It was often depressing. And I started to get involved with the contingent fee civil lawsuit personal injury area, and I loved it. It was an area where you could help individuals receive compensation for harm. You could advance certain important points in society, and it was a good opportunity to earn a living. And you weren’t limited by anything other than your own ideas, your ability to see things, to create things, and to file lawsuits that were important to your clients and important to society. And that’s what I got involved in, and that’s sort of how I got to where I am. As time progressed, I really began to see the importance of the jury. The jury in our system of justice or in our political system bears a crucial role. They are the conscience of the community. They are not running for re-election. They are not having to listen to lobbyists. They do not have to get involved in political disputes. They are the government in this country that is closest to the people, and especially in today’s world, in my opinion, they serve a crucial function. If your conduct is to be judged, who is better than to judge it than by an impartial jury of your peers? And they are the great leveling force. You don’t need lobbyists. You don’t need influence in Congress. You don’t need influence in the executive branch. You just need to put your case forward. And if it connects with the jury, if the jury feels you are on the right side of the case, they will express their opinion as the conscience of the community. And I think that is the importance of right to trial by jury and how the jury is functioning in this country today, for sure.

Susan Barfield (0:03:51) – I appreciate that. And we’re here going to talk today about the social media litigation. And so I wanted to see, just to kind of set the stage from a high level, if you would talk to us about the magnitude of the social media problem and how that product is harming our young generation.

Steve Levin (0:04:10) – Well, social media, as everyone knows, is a multibillion-dollar business. It may be the biggest business in the United States today, in combination, if we include all the social media companies. And like any other business in this country, social media needs to be held accountable. What social media really sells the attention of its users. Their job is to enlist its users to use it as much as possible so they can sell that attention the users give to the site to advertisers. And a little bit of an oversimplification, but that is how they make their money, and they become insulated and rather arrogant in relationship to their influence on the community. So if you have a multimillion-dollar business that is harming children, certain things are not in dispute. The product, the social media product, is designed to addict and manipulate its users to keep them on the site as long as possible. That’s a fact. That’s what they do. Secondarily, everyone knows that sometimes those users are harmed in mild or sometimes serious or sometimes deadly ways as a result of their exposure to this product. So the question becomes, why should these companies, unlike any other company in this country, be immune from lawsuits when they harm children? Especially, I sometimes think, unlike other products, no one ever looks at it this way. What good does social media do for young children? They claim they do certain good, but are they really doing good? They are not an essential business in this country. They’re essential to make money for the owners, but they are not essential for the good of society. So especially in the case of children, social media must be held accountable when they harm children. So we are now seeing what’s happening in this country is private lawyers like our firm and attorney generals of states are suing social media companies, saying, we cannot tolerate. You’re using a product that harms our children, and, you know, it harms our children. And secondly, if you do do that, if you harm our children, then you need to be held accountable in a court of law for that conduct. And if enough times and enough lawsuits are brought by public prosecutors and private attorneys, they will get the message that it’s too expensive to conduct a business that harms children, because juries are going to, are going to comment on their conduct in a dramatic way. Every parent we talk to, every parent we all know, is worried about the impact of social media on their children, and they need the legal process. And it’s interesting. What’s happening is the executive function. The attorney generals of multiple states, most recently New York, in February of this year, have filed lawsuits against social media based on well-published studies by the government, by medical groups, by other groups, that social media is fueling a mental health crisis among our country’s children. And that’s the situation that I’m hopeful that lawyers can address to hold these companies accountable.

Susan Barfield (0:07:51) – And so what are the top five? When you say it’s harming our children and the young generation, what are the top things that are harming them? And then I’m sure the position of these social media companies, or, well, if you know it’s harming children, don’t allow your children either monitor what they’re doing on social media or just take the social media away. So I’m interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Steve Levin (0:08:14) – Well, that’s a great, great question, Susan. Is this a parental responsibility, or is this the responsibility of the social media companies? So when we think of it in terms of a parental responsibility problem, any parent, number one, knows how extremely difficult it is to get their children off of social media. I mean, you could take away all their devices. That would be the simplest method. And if they’re never allowed to use a device at any point in time, you could shield them from social media. But today’s child needs social media to communicate with other children. That’s just the form that they use. They’re not sending letters, they’re not sending emails. They’re even not sending that many texts. They. Social media has become so pervasive that that is the only way kids can communicate with other kids. So it’s sort of interesting. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those commercials on TV about coming to Las Vegas and gamble and lose all your money, and then at the bottom of the screen, it says, “Gambling could be addictive. If you have a problem, contact us.” So they’re telling parents, you need to protect your children from our addictive and manipulative behavior that has become so pervasive that it’s almost become impossible for you to provide that protection other than simply taking all your kids devices away and taking them off social media. I mean, there’s not a parent in America whose child has a device that can read social media, that can’t see the addiction with their own eyes. They’re on their media at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner, at every free moment. Virtual reality has become reality, and that’s because social media is addicting. And social media companies do everything possible to addict their users and manipulate them in a way that they stay on the site. Interesting. They use the data the customers provided to further addiction. The customers. Do our parents responsible? Sure. Should parents encourage a limited social media use? Yes. Should parents monitor what their kids do on social media? Yes. So it’s a partnership between parents and companies. But parents alone, short of taking their kids devices away, cannot stop this mental health crisis fueled by the content on social media.

Susan Barfield (0:10:57) – We’re all real familiar with mass tort cases and these product cases and the product defects. So we keep talking about social media as a product. What do you think the product defect is? And do you think it’s reasonable to believe that the manufacturers are going to make the product safe?

Steve Levin (0:11:14) – Well, the product defect, that’s another great question. The product defect is the algorithms built into social media that are specifically designed to addict kids to social media and to maximize the use of social media so they can sell these kids attention to advertisers. That’s the defect. It’s no different in many respects than cigarettes. For years, tobacco companies have defended themselves by saying, well, it’s not our fault that people smoke. That’s a choice that people have made, and people are entitled to make that choice, and we can’t be sued when they make that choice. Well, then lawyers discovered, because government could never regulate tobacco companies, then lawyers discovered that tobacco companies knew their product was addictive, and on top of that, knew that the products were harming people and causing cancer, yet they still continued to sell the product. Social media’s defect is similar. They know that they’re designed to addict kids, and we’re just talking about kids because that’s the most sensitive group to this. Now, they know their products are designed to addict children to the site. So that’s the defect in the product. They don’t warn parents about it. That’s another defect. And they know that harm will result because they see it. We’ve seen kids who have committed suicide, kids whose lives are ruined, kids who have suffered horrible mental injuries. There’s another story every day about the horrors that happen to kids on social media. So if you have a product that’s designed to addict kids to your site, manipulate their attention, and then it harms them, that’s the product defect to the manufacturers, to the owners, to the Facebooks and Snapchats, Instagrams, who say they take all kinds of reasonable steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Let that claim, let that defense be submitted to a jury. If in fact, a jury decides on the negligence. So the product liability is a strict liability. If the product is defective and it harms people, they’re responsible. Negligence means are the social media companies exercising reasonable care, this is lawyer’s word, to avoid the harm that its product can cause. They say they are, but are they really? And lawsuits will tell us, when we get into the company’s documents, when we get into their memos, when we get into their email, we might find that they were not doing what’s reasonably necessary to make their product safe. And again, under traditional negligence law, they should be held responsible. If they are doing it. And if a jury agrees with them, then they’ll be found not guilty. But I don’t think that’s gonna be the case. Interesting spin-off of that is, and I know we’ve talked previously, and you’re interested in the hearings that were held in Congress, and there was very interesting comments by Lindsey Graham and Josh Hawley, who are typically not supportive of trial lawyers. And they are getting so frustrated with government’s inability to regulate social media, with government’s unwillingness to regulate social media. And as soon as, by the way, government always looks back, they may be regulating the social media. One year ago when now it’s an entirely different thing that Lindsey Graham said, perhaps we should turn you guys over to the trial lawyers and let juries decide whether your product is safe, and let juries decide whether you are reasonably taking precautions to avoid harm to children, and if not, what is fair and reasonable compensation for the harm that you’re causing.

Susan Barfield (0:14:57) – I’m interested to hear how your firm, from a business point of view, how are you handling these cases, and what would you suggest for attorneys that are considering taking on some of these cases?

Steve Levin (0:15:08) – Well, I think from a business point of view, and we have experience in this. Years ago, we sort of were in the forefront of litigation on behalf of nursing home residents and their families against nursing homes and other long-term care providers. And initially, when we got into this field, everyone said from a pure personal injury business point of view, the cases have no value. Your clients are old. Your clients have multiple medical illnesses. They’re not wage earners. They’re going to die soon. So those cases have no value. We rejected that kind. We believe that the intangible damage of pain and suffering, disability and disfigurement, no matter what your condition is, is a compensable harm, and jurors will recognize that harm. And in fact, that’s what happened. When we first started that business, there was four lawyers in the country suing nursing homes. Now there’s thousands. Social media litigation is in its infancy, and lawyers who bring suits against social media company are facing the richest companies in America, with the best lawyers in America who are highly motivated to avoid any type of accounting for their conduct. And there are many laws that are old but favor social media companies. Like, for example, section 230 of a is a federal law that says social media companies are not responsible for content others post on their site. Well, all content is on their site is posted by others, so we’re not saying they’re necessarily responsible for the content on their site, although they should be, whether they post it or not. I believe section 3230 needs to be repealed, but they’re responsible for manipulating and addicting children to that content in ways that they know are harmful. I mean, you’ve read about it all. Kids who are anorexic, kids who are engaging in drinking contests, kids who have been shunned and bullied by other kids. This is the harm that social media causes. And there’s, it’s so far-reaching. But should a lawyer, you know, get into one of these suits? I think it’s going to be a very arduous, very expensive, very long process to hold social media companies responsible. So if you’re going to get involved in this as a lawyer and you haven’t involved in this, been involved in this type of work before, it would not be a bad idea to partner with lawyers who are in this area. Already read everything the lawyers in this area have done, and there’s some great lawyers who have done great things in this area and very carefully choose your cases. It would be nice to be able to help every single child who has been harmed in the littlest or the greatest way by social media. But I think it has to start with those individuals that have suffered the greatest harm. Kids who have taken their own life, kids who have been hospitalized in mental institutions, kids whose life have been ruined. And I think those are the cases you want to initially take. However, again, any parent, and I’m a grandparent of 15 kids, and a parent of four knows that every day there’s another incident in social media. Some child is upset by some other child, some child is upset by something someone posts. Some child is neglecting other aspects of the life because of the addiction, social media, and a lot of the work being done by attorney generals. And I think something like 40 attorney generals of almost every state in the country have joined together to file suit to try to regulate social media in the courts. In the old days, these attorney generals might have lobbied Congress, their senators, or their congressmen to get changes. But as we all know, government has become somewhat dysfunctional in this country. So the attorney general says, let’s turn to the courts. Let’s use the courts to regulate social media companies. And that’s what’s happening. And any, it’s interesting for people, lawyers or parents or grandparents, who want to know more and how they could help, to just google the suit that Mayor Eric Adams has filed in New York, and the press releases around that suit and the governmental and other medical resources they’ve relied on to support their suit. And there are many helpful sites for parents to, you know, do what they can to moderate their child’s use.

Susan Barfield (0:19:55) – Steve, I feel like we could talk about this for a long time. It’s interesting. It’s just. It’s tragic. It’s so sad. Is there anything else? I mean, you’re the expert on this. Have I missed anything that you think other attorneys should know about?

Steve Levin (0:20:11) – No, I think all attorneys should be aware of the harm that social media causes, because regardless of what type of client you represent, in what type of cases, many of those, if not a large number of those cases, are parents. So, in addition to whatever you’re representing your client on, they are parents of kids who are exposed to social media. So everyone should be generally aware of what’s going on in the world of social media and be sensitive to their clients that have been exposed to social media and have been harmed. Any parent out there who is interested in holding social media accountable can call our firm, can call other firms, and I encourage all parents to at least inquire about their rights. You know, unfortunately, we can’t help every parent whose kid is experiencing harm as a result of social media. But we. Not in the legal sense, but if they call us, we can tell them what their rights are. We can give them suggestions as to what they can do to mitigate the harm. We can provide them with locations of resources that they can use to help their clients, help their children avoid this kind of harm.

Susan Barfield (0:21:30) – Steve, thank you so much for taking time to, I’m grateful that you shed insight and just, you know, from a high level, telling us a little bit about some of these cases and the litigation itself. So grateful for your time. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

Steve Levin (0:21:50) – And thank you, Susan, for all you do behalf of our clients and our profession to help us do our job better. We appreciate what you’re doing for us.

Susan Barfield (0:22:00) – Wonderful. Absolutely. Thank you, Steve. 

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