A South Carolina lawmaker who lost his son to suicide after the teenager fell victim to a sextortion scam is now suing Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.
State Rep. Brandon Guffey is alleging that Meta engaged in deceitful practices to get users, particularly children, addicted to the company’s social media platforms, resulting in “pain and suffering” due to poor mental health.
“I’m bringing the suit because of my personal experience of the pain of a father who lost a son,” Guffey told Fox News Digital. “And I believe it’s due to… criminal negligence. I believe that they designed addictive algorithms that target children. They’ve concealed research on the harmful effects, and they’ve misled the public, about the correlation between their products and our current mental health crisis across the globe.”
Guffey also noted that 42 attorneys general across the country sued Meta in October, alleging that the social media giant knew its platforms were harmful to children but continued to market them to young users to increase profits; misled the public about dangers related to social media use; and knowingly collected data from users younger than 13.
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Guffey’s lawsuit makes similar claims, highlighting an increase in mental health and suicide concerns involving America’s youth. The complaint also notes U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy’s March 2023 advisory warning of a growing youth mental health crisis specifically caused by social media.
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“Meta conducted extensive internal studies (previously concealed) establishing its knowledge of the defective and addictive products and the impacts these products would have on adolescents,” his complaint states. “Nevertheless, in order to capitalize on their platforms, Meta continued exploiting users by implementing defective algorithms – in foreseeably unsafe ways and in dereliction of their basic duties of care – targeting young people, inducing harmful, unhealthy, and compulsive use by kids. “
A Meta spokesperson told Fox News Digital in a statement that it wants “teens to have safe, age-appropriate experiences online,” and the company has “over 30 tools and resources to support them and their parents.”
“We encourage teens and adults to report suspicious content, activity or accounts to us if they feel unsafe; we reach out to law enforcement in cases of imminent harm,” the spokesperson said. “Teens can also use NCMEC’s Take It Down, a new tool we supported that helps prevent young people’s intimate images from being posted online in the future.”
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One evening in July 2022, Guffey’s 17-year-old son, Gavin Guffey, received a message from someone posing as a girl on Instagram, and the pair began chatting on the social media app.
That person convinced Gavin to turn on “vanish mode” in their Instagram chat, which allows messages to disappear after they are received, so they could exchange photos.
After exchanging photos, that person demanded money from Gavin, who replied that he only had $25 in his account. After sending the $25, the perpetrator demanded more.
“He even said… ‘I’m sitting in my room with a gun. If these pictures go out, I’m going to end it right now,'” the state lawmaker previously told Fox News Digital. “I don’t know if any of the pictures were shared.”
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Gavin, who had just graduated from high school that spring and had a passion for art and music, shot himself that evening.
After his death, the scammer he met on Instagram tracked down Rep. Guffey and Gavin’s teenage cousin on Instagram and began demanding money from them.
“[The perpetrator] went as far as within 30 days of me burying my son to say, ‘Did I tell you your son begged for his life?'” the state representative recalled, adding that he considers sextortionists to be terrorists. No arrests have been made in the investigation.
The FBI defines sextortion as a “serious crime” in which perpetrators threaten to expose a victim’s sensitive or private information in exchange for sexually explicit material or money. The agency recently announced that it received more than 13,000 reports of online financial sextortion involving at least 12,600 victims between October 2021 and March 2023.
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The average age of sextortion victims is between 14 and 17 years old, the FBI said in a press release last week, but the agency noted that any child can become a victim. Offenders of financially motivated sextortion typically originate from African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the FBI.
Sextortion can lead to suicide and self-harm. Between October 2021 and March 2023, the majority of online financial extortion victims were boys. These reports involved at least 20 suicides, the FBI said.
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“I equate it to… these digital companies are the tobacco companies of our kids’ generations,” Guffey said. “They are fully aware of the problems that they’re causing, and they care more about profits than they do about people.”
Since his son’s death, Guffey has made it his life’s mission to spread awareness about the dangers of sextortion and unsafe social media use in general. This lawsuit against Meta is part of that mission, he said.
“I’m fighting until the day of my death. This is my mission.”
“They have a permanent opponent,” Guffey said. “… And I’ll fight it on every front. I’ll fight it through legislation on the state level. I’ll fight it through going to conferences and getting other states to push this legislation. I’ll fight it through the media as I’m screaming my message from the mountaintops, and I’ll fight it in court. I’m not going away.”
As far as solutions go, Guffey said he believes Meta “already knows” how to make its social media apps less addictive and safer for minors.
The state representative believes the company should have tools to track down nude images and block whoever is involved in sending them, prevent algorithms from being used to curate content for minor users, and ensure that minors’ data will not be collected, among other possible solutions.
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