It’s doubtful that Anas Modamani, a Syrian refugee in Germany, ever thought that his simple selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel would get him in so much trouble. His photo initially became a symbol for the country’s openness to refugees. But soon after, false reports began to spread on social media using the photo to link Modamani to crime and terrorism across Europe.
Modamani, 19, is now suing Facebook for hosting those false reports and allowing them to spread. As the Washington Post reports, Modamani is seeking to compel Facebook to remove the false reports about him from its website and to preemptively filter out any new posts with similar content.
Modamani and Facebook went to court in Würzburg on Monday. According to a press release by Modamani’s attorney, Chan-jo Jun, Facebook’s defense argued that technology that can preemptively target fake news about a specific person or topic doesn’t exist. Jun countered that since Facebook has the the ability to automatically filter out pornography, it should be able to do so for fake news that uses Modamani’s selfie.
The selfie was used in articles falsely accusing him of being involved in the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Berlin, as well as an incident in which a homeless man was set on fire in Berlin.
If successful, the lawsuit could set a precedent that makes Facebook liable for future defamatory posts that appear on the social network.
In the United States, the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects companies from libel or defamation suits if the company is seen as a publisher rather than a content provider.
“If people post anything false or harmful on Facebook, it’s the author’s liability, not Facebook’s,” said David Gingras, a lawyer who in 2014 used the CDA to successfully defend TheDirty.com from a defamation suit in federal appeals court, in an interview with MediaFile.
Although Facebook is an American company, its foreign assets are subject to foreign laws and court rulings. Modamani’s lawsuit is filed against Facebook’s international headquarters in Ireland.
“Foreign laws are way less protective of speech than we have in the U.S. here,” according to Gringas. “If Facebook has assets outside of the country that it cares about protecting… Facebook has no choice but to comply with foreign court orders.”
According to a statement made by a Facebook spokesperson in Berlin, “Facebook is committed to meeting our obligations under German law in relation to content which is shared by people on our platform.”
The spokesperson also said that Facebook has already removed any defamatory content reported by Modamani’s legal team.
“We do not believe that legal action here is necessary or that it is the most effective way to resolve the situation,” the spokesperson said.
Facebook has been the subject of criticism for months about how fake news on the website might have influenced the U.S. presidential election. The company has suffered similar flack in Germany, where federal elections are coming up in September.
Late last year, German lawmakers were considering a law that could fine Facebook up to €500,000 for any fake news story that is not removed within 24 hours of being reported.
In January, Facebook implemented tools in Germany that alert users of suspicious sources and allow them to flag false reports. The tools were made available in the U.S. the month before. Facebook has yet to release any statistics of how the tool has been used so far.
Facebook also rolled out a new program last month, dubbed The Facebook Journalism Project, to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry” and use this relationship to combat fake news.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has avoided calling his company an outright media company because of the protection it has under the CDA. If Facebook loses the case against, Modamani, it could be seen as a concession that the social network and technology company is, in fact, a media company.
The German court is expected to announce a ruling on March 7.