Lawsuit: Temple family blames TikTok’s ‘defective algorithm’ for daughter’s strangulation
TEMPLE, Texas (KWTX) - A Temple couple decided to seek legal help after their 8-year-old daughter, Lalani Erika Walton, died after allegedly participating in the so-called “Blackout Challenge” propagated on social media platforms like TikTok.
Matthew Bergman, who is the attorney and founder of Social Media Victims Law Center, was with colleagues when he heard the news.
“We get a notice that an 8-year-old girl had asphyxiated herself through the Tik Tok Challenge,” Bergman said. “Our first reaction was we were crying, all of us, as lawyers, and we’ve all seen tough things in our career.”
After Bergman and his coworkers researched the case, they claim they found an issue in the Tik Tok app.
“We realized that there’s something inherently defective about an algorithm that directs children to videos encouraging them to hang themselves,” he said. “In what universe does an 8-year-old child seek out content on harming themselves in that way?”
The goal of the “Blackout Challenge” is for people to try to choke themselves until they pass out.
Bergman claims the app’s algorithm pushed videos of this challenge repeatedly on Lalani’s feed.
“What is it about an algorithm that’s designed to maximize user engagement, first and foremost, that inherently is leading so many children in harm’s way?” Bergman said.
The algorithm shows users content that is similar to something they have liked or showed interest in.
“They think, ‘I want to try this,’” Kristy Donaldson, a counselor with Premier Neurofeedback and Counseling Services, said. “They have no idea that the end result could be truly a life and death situation.”
In a statement to the The Washington Post, a TikTok spokesperson said the “disturbing ‘challenge,’ which people seem to learn about from sources other than TikTok, long predates our platform and has never been a TikTok trend.”
“We remain vigilant in our commitment to user safety and would immediately remove related content if found,” the spokesperson said. TikTok told The Washington Post it has blocked the hashtag #BlackoutChallenge from its search engine.
Tik Tok even removed any videos of blackout challenges from popping up when searching it on the app. Now, the app leads to a resource page on how to participate in challenges safely.
“If they could remove it, why didn’t they do it earlier?” Bergman said. “Essentially, we’re claiming that the product is dangerous as designed and that parents and users were not adequately warned.”
Bergman says the case could last more than a year. He fears social media immunities may be a roadblock in court.
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