How a Syrian refugee lost his case against Facebook and fake news

A German court dismissed a lawsuit from Anas Modamani, who wanted Facebook to identify and delete posts falsely linking him to high-profile crimes committed by migrants. 

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters/File
Syrian refugee Anas Modamani takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel outside a refugee camp near the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, after registering at Berlin's Spandau district on Sept. 10, 2015.

In a legal battle against Facebook brought by a Syrian refugee, the social media giant has been named the victor. 

A German court ruled on Tuesday to dismiss a case brought against Facebook by 19-year-old Anas Modamani, who wanted the company to identify and delete posts falsely linking him to high-profile crimes committed by migrants. 

In 2015, Mr. Modamani was one of several asylum-seekers to take a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Later, his selfie began to appear in two types of common anti-migrant Facebook posts, one of which incorrectly identified him as one of several migrants who had attempted to set a homeless man on fire in December. The other type of post included his photo in a montage with the truck used to attack a Christmas market in Berlin around the same time.

"I cried when I saw it," Modamani told Al Jazeera, prior to the ruling. "I want to live in peace in Germany. I fled from the war and bloodshed in Syria to live in safety.... I was too afraid to leave my house after I saw what people wrote about me. This is not just my problem. It's a problem of our time."

Reportedly fearing for his safety, Modamani sought an injunction that would force Facebook to actively seek out and remove such posts, instead of waiting for users to flag them. But the court in Würzburg ruled that because Facebook hadn't manipulated the content itself, which would have made it legally responsible for the content’s distribution, the company couldn't be forced to abide by a cease and desist order. 

The ruling comes as Germany struggles to navigate the new challenges that social media brings with its ability to quickly spread false or hateful content. A government-led task force is currently looking into how social media companies deal with such content amid the rise of fake news and populist propaganda related to the upcoming German elections. 

The case also raised questions about how Germany’s strict laws on personal privacy should be applied to social media companies in an increasingly digital age. The German Constitution guarantees a right to the "free development of the individual," which includes the right to personal privacy and the right to determine the extent to which one appears in public. Modamani’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, argued that Facebook has failed to uphold this law. 

Modamani and his attorney asked Facebook to remove a post falsely identifying him as one of the youths who set fire to a homeless man in Berlin. In response, Facebook said the post did not violate user guidelines, and the photo is still in circulation. 

"We appreciate that this is a very difficult situation for Mr. Modamani," Facebook said in a statement, as reported by The New York Times. "We quickly disabled access to content that has been accurately reported to us by Mr. Modamani’s legal representatives, and will continue to respond quickly to valid reports of the content at issue from Mr. Modamani’s legal representatives."

Facebook had argued that it would be impossible to search the entire contents of its site, a point Mr. Jun disputed. 

Jun also took issue with the fact that the judge rejected an injunction "partially on the basis that the content had already been distributed worldwide by the time of the hearing."

"This is a cynical argument: it means that the only way an individual could stop a slanderous story from going viral is by calling a court within two or three hours of the content being uploaded," Jun said, as reported by The Guardian. 

One upside to the case, regardless of the ruling, was the attention the trial generated, he told the Times. Since late December, the number of threats made against Modamani has decreased, he noted. 

"We learned a lot from this case," Jun said. "People have learned that Mr. Modamani is not a terrorist. We lawyers have learned that we cannot help victims of libel and slander with the laws we have. But we have learned which laws have to be changed." 

This report includes material from the Associated Press. 

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