Law Firm Innovator: Matthew Bergman of Social Media Victims Law Center
Full Interview Transcript
Jon Robinson (00:05):
Welcome, everyone, to CAMG’s Law Firm Innovators video podcast. I am honored to be joined today by Matthew Bergman, who is the founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center. Thank you, Matt, for joining us.
Matthew Bergman (00:20):
No, it’s good to be here.
Jon Robinson (00:21):
Matt, you and I have worked together for the past few months on the launch of the Social Media Victims Law Center, both website, PR campaign, as well as the actual launch of the law firm itself. There has been a lot of press coverage. It is a very interesting topic. We’re going to talk about the actual litigation itself. We’re going to go a little bit into your background and some of the innovative things that we’re doing at Social Media Victims Law Center to promote the litigation, bring awareness to a very noteworthy cause, and really help the victims and the families of the victims who’ve been affected by this situation. So why don’t we just start off, why don’t you give the audience a little bit of background on your career and what led you up to the launch of the Social Media Victims Law Center?
Matthew Bergman (01:10):
Well, I’ve been a lawyer for 30 years, and for 25 of those years my practice has been exclusively representing individuals or the families of individuals who are injured or killed through the negligence and malfeasance of large companies. And it’s been a very rewarding practice. We’ve had a lot of success. But everything I’ve ever done up until now has been compensating victims for past injuries. And I decided that at this stage in my career, I wanted to actually use my legal skills to help ensure that there are no more victims. That we can actually stop people from being injured, not just compensate them, which is important but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem.
Matthew Bergman (01:51):
And at the same time that I was thinking about this, I heard Francis Haugen testify in Congress about what the social media companies know about how dangerous their products are to kids. And I looked at the information about the mental health crisis that we’re experiencing now, nationally, among our youth and decided that I really needed to do something to solve this problem once and for all. So I founded the Social Media Victims Law Center with the intent and with the express purpose of holding social media companies responsible for the damages that, and the carnage that they’re inflicting on our kids.
Jon Robinson (02:33):
For those who haven’t been following you in the news, and haven’t been seeing all the stories over the past few months, can you just give the audience just a little bit of background on what this litigation is about and some of the specific cases that have been making the press in the past few months?
Matthew Bergman (02:49):
Well, this litigation is about using the concept of product liability to hold these companies responsible for their dangerous products. Looking at how they design their social media platforms, how they put their algorithms together, and how those algorithms and platforms addict children to their, to the social media platforms, and direct them toward very, very harmful content. And we’ve had a number of cases that we have brought, in the past few months, involving children who have lost their lives through these dangerous products, as well as children who have been severely impacted in terms of their mental and physical health.
Jon Robinson (03:34):
There have been a few kind of landmark cases that have been filed over the past few months. Let’s talk about the first one that really made the big headlines, was featured on Good Morning America. Can you go a little bit into the details of that case and where it currently stands today?
Matthew Bergman (03:48):
Yeah. This was a case involving Selena Rodriguez, a child who took her life at age 11 after having become addicted to social media, as well as having been subjected to unbelievable sexual abuse online. And become just really subjected to unspeakable conduct in unspeakable conduct and ultimately took her life on Snapchat. And we brought the case on behalf of her mom for the express purpose of limiting and ending this carnage that’s going on with kids. Losing a child is the most horrific thing that any of us can think about. I mean, you think about there’s nobody in the world that wouldn’t jump in front of a speeding train to save their kids. There’s nothing that we wouldn’t do, and there’s no loss worse. There, words don’t exist to describe the pain and the loss that a parent experiences.
Matthew Bergman (04:54):
And in this case, it’s so pernicious because children aren’t safe in their own homes. They are in their own rooms and they’re online or they’re through social media… In Selena’s case, communicating salacious material to adult men in different countries. In what universe, in what universe is it okay for a child to have some product that causes this level of vulgarity? It’s sexual abuse. That her mother doesn’t even know about in the next room. When I was growing up if teenagers misbehaved or were hanging out in the wrong crowd or making bad decisions, our parents would ground us. And guess what we weren’t particularly pleasant to be around. Certainly teenager isn’t much fun to have in the house, but at least a parent knows that their child is safe within the four corners of their house. In this case, that’s not true. That these products are so dangerous and parents just don’t have the tools to keep their kids away from them.
Jon Robinson (06:01):
So this seems very straightforward. How is it possible that there’s a legitimate defense provided by the social media companies that what’s happening is okay?
Matthew Bergman (06:13):
Well, I don’t know if there’s a legitimate defense, but there’s a very strong defense. And that defense is that they claim that they’re immune for liability. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been construed, by a lot of courts, to provide a virtual cart blanche for social media companies to provide any horrible third party conduct to vulnerable kids without legal consequences. So that’s number one.
Matthew Bergman (06:43):
Number two is they blame the parents. These are bad parents. They should just take their kids’ phone away. Or it’s their parental responsibility. Well, we embrace parental responsibility, but the problem is that these products are explicitly designed to frustrate parents and thwart parental authority. Snapchat, the messages go away. In Instagram, kids can open multiple accounts under different names outside of their parents’ supervision. And kids will be kids. You can’t expect kids to not try to get around their parents’ authority. I mean, we all did. That’s what kids do.
Matthew Bergman (07:21):
But at least our parents could know when we were on the phone. They don’t know when their children are having these kinds of communications. And you can’t very well take a kid’s phone away from them when they rely on the phone to access their homework assignments, to talk to their friends, to get a ride home from school. There’s just nothing that is easily done by parents to control this. And parents don’t know what their kids are doing. I mean, Tammy had no idea that Selena, at age 11, was trading naked pictures with adult men in different countries. Just the level of outrageousness is beyond compare. But the companies will say, “Oh, it’s a parents’ fault. They’re bad parents.” And look, we honor parental responsibility, but you can’t have a product that makes it difficult to impossible for parents to exercise that responsibility.
Jon Robinson (08:25):
So what can parents do to protect their children with the limitations that are currently put in place, by the social media companies, to prevent them from providing oversight and keeping their children off the platforms?
Matthew Bergman (08:39):
It’s very difficult. A couple things. We’re mounting a campaign. Basically like a, Just Say No, campaign where parents can contact the social media companies. They can go on our website and we have materials that they, a letter that they can send to the, kind of a fill out and send to the social media companies, demanding that their children be taken offline. That’s one thing parents can do.
Matthew Bergman (09:05):
Another thing parents can do is really take the kids’ phone away during hours when they don’t need it. Take their phone away at nighttime. We have kids that are up all hours of the day and night Snapchatting with groups, with their friends. There’s no reason that has to happen.
Matthew Bergman (09:24):
I think the other thing parents can do is lead by example. I mean, all of us spend too much time on our phones. All of us, our phones become an appendage to us. And so I think parents can set an example by coming home and putting their phone away, and spending time interacting with their kids, having dinner, playing games, watching TV. Just doing stuff so that they’re not always online. Or let’s go on a walk. Let’s leave our cell phones behind. So I think there are things that we, as a culture, can do to become less dependent on our phones. And I think we, as parents can do to lead by example.
Matthew Bergman (10:01):
But with those limitations, it’s very hard to really know what your kids are doing online. Except also I would say, and this is what the psychological research tells us, is that like, for instance, with smoking in kids, the one method that works to get kids not to smoke is to explain to them how they are being manipulated by the tobacco companies to purchase and use cigarettes. I think having open discussions with kids about algorithms and how they’re used to addict kids and manipulate kids, I think is a worthwhile conversation to have.
Matthew Bergman (10:42):
But all these tools are really very limited and really are making difference at the margins. The, the most important thing that these companies can do is turn off their algorithms. And I think the only way that they can do that is if we can, through the civil justice system, through jury awards, and perhaps through injunctive relief, make it more expensive for these companies to make dangerous products than safe products. As long as their profit is derived from user engagement, they are going to be incentivized to do anything possible to maximize the amount of time that teenagers spend online on their platforms. And so it’s, I think, a vital part of the component to hold these companies accountable in a court of law.
Jon Robinson (11:35):
What are you seeing now with the different types of issues that parents are bringing to your attention? There’s obviously suicide, depression, addiction to the social media platforms. What are some of the other things that you’re seeing?
Matthew Bergman (11:50):
Well, yeah, in addition, we’ve seen just 146% increase in suicide among 12 to 16 year olds since 2008. So these are the most extreme results of social media addiction. But we also see a lot of other very difficult [inaudible 00:12:08] things. About two thirds of our clients whose children are girls have been groomed to exchange sexually explicit photographs with adults. That’s pervasive and very, very damaging to the self-esteem of the children that are placed in that position.
Matthew Bergman (12:32):
We have also about 250 cases of attempted suicide, where thank God they didn’t, they weren’t successful. But they tried to take their lives, and were hospitalized, and have ongoing mental health challenges. We have a significant number of girls in particular that had developed severe eating disorders. In some cases had to be hospitalized and almost lost their lives.
Matthew Bergman (13:00):
In some cases, girls whose bodies were so damaged that their ability to have children themselves has been taken away from them. And then we have cases of depression, anxiety.
Matthew Bergman (13:12):
And then just even cases that aren’t necessarily actionable per se. You have kids that lose their, and this is pervasive, kids that lose their ability to have normal social interactions with each other. There’s the psychological research shows that social media addiction makes it harder for kids to go out on a date, harder for kids to drive. When I was a kid, I turned 15 and a half, I got my learners permit. 16, in one day, I got my driver’s license. You have significant number of boys now that are afraid to get their driver’s licenses. So I think the overall psychological impacts, even where it doesn’t lead to something that can give rise to a lawsuit, is very, very pervasive and very, very damaging to the mental and physical health of our young people.
Jon Robinson (14:06):
We’re going to shift mindset here for a second and talk about how you’ve been able to get the message out in the media. It’s really taken off. You’ve gotten, as we’ve spoken about coverage on Good Morning America, coverage on CNN. What are some of the things that you have done to really accelerate the launch of the Social Media Victims Law Center, and gain that type of media coverage and attention, which in turn has brought the visibility of Social Media Victims Law Center to the forefront of conversations that parents are having with each other.
Matthew Bergman (14:40):
Told the truth. And told the truth that has been withheld from parents for many years. And I think that the reason why we’ve gotten media reports is because we’ve hit a nerve. People realize that this is real, and this is real in their lives. That even if their child is not severely mentally ill, their child spends time online insensibly, incessantly. Excuse me. I think that these stories are so powerful because they’re so real. Because everybody can relate to them. Because everyone who has a child now, virtually, is worried about the amount of time they spend online. And so when parents say, “It’s not just me. It’s not just my kids. It’s everybody’s kids.” I think it connects.
Matthew Bergman (15:38):
And then I just think the utter pathos of something like an 11 year old child who’s takes her life on Snapchat, or a 17 year old boy who takes his life while he is holding his cell phone, or a 16 year old boy that commits Russian roulette, or maybe dies playing Russian roulette on TikTok, or a 16 or 14 year old girl who hangs herself on TikTok.
Matthew Bergman (16:07):
This is just the most horrific and most just utter outrageous conduct on behalf of these companies that it hits a nerve. That parents are starting to say, “Enough is enough. We have to do something. We can’t let this carnage of our children continue unabated. It’s not anything I did. It’s not any…”
Matthew Bergman (16:34):
But the other thing that it is, and I think the most significant thing is, the incredible courage of Brittany Doffing, of Tammy Rodriguez, of Chris and Donna Dolly. I mean, these are parents that have sustained the worst loss anybody can imagine. I tell my clients, like I say, there’s 6,500 spoken languages in the world, and they’re not words in any of those languages put together to describe the pain that these parents are going through and the loss that they’ve sustained. And yet they have the courage to go on camera. These aren’t publicity hounds. These are private people who’ve sustained the most unbelievable loss. And they go willing to talk about it because they want to prevent other families from going through what they went through. So I think ultimately, it’s this unbelievable courage of these parents to stand up, to talk, to talk about something so difficult, to make themselves vulnerable, because they want this to stop.
Matthew Bergman (17:50):
The Dollys have said that they… These aren’t people that are looking for a payout, they know this is a hard case. They know that the likelihood of winning is difficult. They know that the social media companies have all the money in the world, and are going to hire the best and the brightest lawyers to manipulate the court system to avoid responsibility. But they don’t care. Because they want to hold these companies accountable and they want their children’s story to be told. In my faith tradition, we say, when somebody has a loss, “May their memory be a blessing.” And I think that these parents believe that they’re honoring their children’s memory by speaking out. And so that’s why we’ve gotten the coverage we have. It’s nothing that I did.
Jon Robinson (18:45):
From a legal standpoint, how are you envisioning this litigation progressing? Individual case filings? Do you see it consolidated at some point?
Matthew Bergman (18:56):
It’s hard to say. We’re still at the very beginning of the case. They’re going to try very hard to avoid even having to answer. They’re going to, they’re trying to, they will try to dismiss these cases without even answering.
Matthew Bergman (19:12):
And then if we’re successful in just being able to go forward. We’re not even talking about… Just being able to do discovery. Force them to produce the documents where they have conspired with social psychologists to come up with algorithms to addict kids. Force them… And Francis Haugen, her incredible bravery on releasing some of those internal documents. We believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg. But there’ll be a long there, there’s every, it’s going to be a fight every step of the way. Now, will there be some consolidation down the road? Potentially. It’s just really too early to say.
Matthew Bergman (19:58):
And so far, we’re the only firm that are doing these cases. So it’s hard to say. But I think that there are various mechanisms in both state and federal courts to adjudicate cases efficiently, but first we’ve got to get past the motion to dismiss. And that’s, well, first we have to even show that we have a right to bring this case. And it’s going to be a fight every step of the way. But I’ve been a lawyer for 30 years. I have never been more excited than I have. Today I turn 60 and I feel like I know what I’m going to be doing for the next 10 years of my life. And I’ve never been more excited about doing it.
Jon Robinson (20:41):
Well, happy birthday, Matt.
Matthew Bergman (20:44):
Jon Robinson (20:46):
What would you say to the law firms locally who may come across a case like this? How should they go about pursuing it or otherwise?
Matthew Bergman (20:59):
Well, I think you have to be very careful in these cases, because the level of and the sophistication of the opposition is very, very intense. And I think that it makes sense for law firms to work with other law firms that have experience doing this for two reasons.
Matthew Bergman (21:18):
One, particularly at an early stage of this litigation, it’s important not to make unnecessary mistakes. I mean, we all make mistakes as lawyers all the time. But we want to avoid, we want to limit the mistakes that we make.
Matthew Bergman (21:35):
The second thing is that it’s really important, as this litigation develops, this is new litigation, that smart and creative men and women trade ideas and talk to each other and experiment with legal concepts. There’s nothing more beneficial when you have a tough legal challenge then to sit down and talk to other people who’ve had different experiences and work together. And so I think this really is a type of litigation that screams out for collaboration and co-counseling. This isn’t, I don’t think anybody can or should think that they can carry this torch on their own. Myself included, most of all.
Jon Robinson (22:26):
If someone watching this does want to discuss a potential claim with you, what is the best method for them to do?
Matthew Bergman (22:35):
They should send me or my partner, Laura, an email, and we’d be happy to talk. This is, these are very, very difficult cases. And I guess the other thing that we need to be aware of is, as advocates, is we need to be cognizant of our self care as well, because you I’ve spent my career representing mostly people who have Mesothelioma and terminal cancer. And kind of in many cases, walk them through the case at the same time that their life is coming to an end. And so I’m familiar with clients who are in very difficult physical and emotional situations, but I’ve never had the kind of sadness that we have in this work. And so I think it’s important for those of us who are privileged to have been entrusted with these clients’ representation to take care of ourselves too and hold each other close.
Jon Robinson (23:38):
Well, we very much appreciate you joining us today, Matt. I think you are the personification of a law firm innovator, the purpose of this series. Good luck moving forward with these cases. And we very much appreciate you joining us.
Matthew Bergman (23:53):
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Jon Robinson (23:54):
Matthew Bergman (23:55):