Canada

Doctor’s lawsuit claims he was made ‘scapegoat’ for N.B. COVID outbreak and Facebook made things worse

Facebook did nothing to stop the spread of death threats and racist attacks against Ngola and that’s why he has filed multiple claims against its parent company, Meta, lawyer says

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A new lawsuit claims Facebook should be held accountable for “promoting hate” against a New Brunswick doctor who faced racist attacks after being accused of spreading COVID-19 to his patients and community.

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Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola filed a lawsuit with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Moncton on Thursday against the province of New Brunswick, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Facebook.

Joel Etienne, Ngola’s lawyer, said Facebook did nothing to stop the spread of death threats and racist attacks against Ngola, who is Black, and that’s why his client has filed multiple claims against its parent company, Meta.

“You’ve got some major human rights crisis that are fuelled by Facebook … there is basically no moderation at all,” Etienne said. “This is how and why Facebook is now on the claim as well.”

The backlash began after Ngola tested positive for COVID-19 following a trip to Montreal in early May 2020. Ngola was accused of treating patients at Campbellton Regional Hospital while failing to follow New Brunswick’s isolation rules. He was labelled “patient zero” in an outbreak that killed two and infected dozens.

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Since the incident, Dr. Ngola has left the province and now resides in Quebec, for fear of his and his family’s safety.

According to the statement of claim document, Facebook allegedly “allowed the dissemination of hateful, racist statements that incited hatred” and “wilfully promoted these hateful posts against Dr. Ngola by refusing to remove the posts and prevent individuals from communicating such statements on its public platform.”

Ngola’s case is one of several arguing that Meta should be held accountable for Facebook posts. But with millions of users, what kind of responsibility does a social platform like Facebook have in moderating comments or protecting individual safety?

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“Arguably, the law holds publishers accountable for any publications of statements that are either defamatory or invaded privacy to a certain extent. And most of the time, it applies to the actual publishers; the authors, the users, those that repost etc,” said Maanit Zemel, a Toronto lawyer who is not involved in the case but specializes in internet and social media defamation.

“There are some case laws in Canada that would suggest that the website host, if they are aware of it and they don’t remove it, that they would be liable for defamation and possibly even arguably for invasion of privacy.”

Zemel said the biggest hurdle Ngola may face when it comes to holding social media sites like Facebook accountable, is enforcement. She said Facebook often takes the position that they are a United States-based company, and this grants them stronger immunity against liability cases, due to a piece of U.S. legislation called the Communications Decency Act.

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“It’s going to be an uphill battle for Mr. Ngola and his lawyers,” Zemel said. “I would assume that Facebook is going to fight it.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the RCMP, the Department of Justice and Public Safety, and Meta all declined to comment on the case.

“We can’t comment on pending litigation,” said a Meta spokesperson.

The statement of claim says that Ngola’s trip to Montreal was unavoidable. He had to pick up his daughter from her mother’s residence so that she could travel outside the country for a funeral. It also stated that he confirmed with public health officials that he was exempt from isolation requirements.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for Mr. Ngola and his lawyers

After he tested positive for COVID on May 27, 2020, the situation quickly escalated. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs publicly described the doctor as an “irresponsible individual.” While he did not name Ngola, he mentioned that a doctor had travelled to Quebec and returned to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital without isolating.

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People quickly pieced together who Higgs was referring to, and social media sites like Facebook flooded with death threats and racist insults targeting Ngola. His personal information was posted online, including his address.

In addition to Facebook, Ngola is suing the RCMP and the province of New Brunswick, alleging abuse of power, negligence, malicious prosecution and more.

Etienne said that the doctor had in fact followed the provincial guidelines. He also said that the premier had evidence of Ngola’s innocence shortly after he made his initial announcement, but the situation continued unnecessarily.

“The premier’s office directed the RCMP to investigate. The RCMP didn’t even know that they were supposed to investigate. They had to find a complainant, they didn’t even have a complainant because it wasn’t a crime,” Etienne said. “They sent 21 police officers into Campbellton. I do murder cases in Toronto. We get two police investigators on a murder case. Two.”

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The statement of claim alleges that “the Premier’s Office, the Department of Justice and Public Safety and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“RCMP”) all colluded with each other to orchestrate a campaign and operation that was designed to scapegoat Dr. Ngola.”

Etienne said he hopes that this case will set a precedent to prevent future situations like this from occurring.

“I think what’s really, really important to us, is to make sure that the institutions that have caused this harm on Jean-Robert have internal structural changes, then make sure that something like this can’t happen. That’s really what we’re after.”

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