Syrian refugee in Germany sues Facebook over fake news report

Facebook post falsely claimed Anas Modamani set fire to Berlin homeless man

Anas Modamani and Angela Merkel at Berlin’s AWO Refugium Askanierring shelter for migrants on September 10th, 2015. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Anas Modamani and Angela Merkel at Berlin’s AWO Refugium Askanierring shelter for migrants on September 10th, 2015. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

Facebook is facing its first fake news legal challenge in Germany in a case that could provide a further landmark ruling in Europe’s growing battle with the US social network.

The case has been brought by a Syrian refugee, Anas Modamani, who rose to prominence in 2015 after he was photographed taking a selfie with chancellor Angela Merkel.

Over Christmas, however, a post to Facebook claimed Mr Modamani was one of several asylum seekers who set fire to a homeless man in a Berlin underground station.

The fictitious claim has been forwarded hundreds of times online in reports condemning Dr Merkel’s refugee policy. It was not removed from the website because, the man’s lawyer says, Facebook claims it doesn’t breach the network’s community standards.

Now a court in Würzburg, in the Frankonian region of northern Bavaria, will hear a case brought against the US social network for spreading untrue claims.

“Anas Modamani is fighting back based on his personal rights, that no person is able to slander him or accuse him of crimes,” said Chan-Jo Jun, lawyer for Mr Modamani. “For Facebook fake claims and insults are not a breach of community standards, but most certainly a breach of German law.”

This is not the first fake Facebook post about Mr Modamani. Earlier in 2016, another untrue post claimed the man was linked to the Brussels bombings.

The man’s lawyer is optimistic that the Würzburg court will agree with him that Facebook International, though based in Dublin, is still subject to German law.

“As far as I know, Facebook has never answered to a court for fake news or incitement and as far as I know this is the first case of its kind in Germany,” said Mr Chan-Jo Jun.

Similar case

The German case, to be heard on February 6th, has similarities with a case from before Christmas in Austria. A Green Party leader there secured a court injunction against Facebook, forcing it to remove fake news and hate speech posts about her.

The Austrian court agreed with the Green Party that, even if Facebook is only a technical platform rather than a publisher of information, it still has legal obligations to prevent the spread of inciteful or untrue information.

In December the German federal government, tired of waiting for Facebook to address fake news and other problematic posts, announced plans to fine the company €500,000 for every problematic post not removed within 24 hours of being reported.

The looming legislation will also force the company to set up a legal representation in Germany and a 24-hour hotline to make it easier to address ongoing problems with the company.

Complaints are currently forwarded to the Dublin headquarters with, critics complain, an unclear action time. Though Facebook considers Dublin the legal addressee for complaints, the company has outsourced dealing with problematic posts on the network to a Berlin-based company.