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Angela Merkel

Refugee took selfie with Merkel, so social media falsely branded him a terrorist. Now he’s suing Facebook

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 6:50pm

A Syrian refugee famous for taking a selfie with Angela Merkel in autumn 2015 is taking Facebook to court for allegedly taking insufficient action against what the man says are defamatory “fake news” posts using his picture.

Facebook has been summoned to a district court in the southern German city of Würzburg in what could prove to be a landmark case as the government looks for ways to make internet companies more accountable for the content published on their platforms.

Anas Modamani, 19, from Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, took a photograph of himself with Merkel during the chancellor’s visit to a refugee shelter in Berlin’s Spandau district on 10 September 2015.

In the days that followed, the picture he had taken on his mobile phone, as well as a press agency photographer’s shot of him taking the selfie, became defining images of the German response to the refugee crisis.

Since then, however, the photographs have frequently appeared in social media posts alleging that Modamani has subsequently been engaged in criminal or terrorist activity.

In March last year, numerous posts and articles falsely identified Modamani as Najim Laachraoui, one of the terrorists behind the Brussels bombings. Similar postings proliferated after an attempted suicide bombing in Ansbach, Germany, in July.

Over Christmas a post on Facebook using Modamani’s selfie falsely claimed that he was part of a group who had set fire to a sleeping homeless man at a Berlin subway station. The real suspects – six Syrian asylum seekers and one Libyan – later handed themselves in to the police.

In another post, Merkel and Modamani were photoshopped on to a picture of the truck used in a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market, along with the words: “They are Merkel’s dead.”

Modamami’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, said: “Every time something happens that has to do with refugees, he is wheeled out as an icon, as Merkel’s model refugee, and smeared with all sorts of criminal acts.”

He said the original post about the arson case had been shared by around 500 users and was likely to have been seen by 25,000 to 50,000 people. One of the comments underneath the post threatened Modamani with violence, saying: “They should be set on fire instead!!!”

“Anas Modamani is now defending himself by making use of his personal rights. No person has to put up with defamation and insinuation,” Jun said.

Petitions have been filed for preliminary injunctions against Facebook’s European subsidiary Facebook Ireland Ltd and a politician with the rightwing populist party Alternative for Germany who uploaded the image linking Modamani to the arson case on his own Facebook page and refused to delete it.

Facebook has since blocked the truck picture in Germany and removed the original image relating to the arson case, but Jun said the company had failed to delete other postings of the latter image despite repeated attempts to flag it up to moderators.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We received a takedown request from Mr Jun alleging that a specific item of content on our platform violates Mr Modamani’s right of personality. Access to that reported content was quickly disabled, so we do not believe there is any basis for him to seek an injunction.”

The Würzburg court has scheduled a public hearing on 6 February to decide whether an interim injunction should be served against Facebook Europe. The company’s spokesperson would not comment on whether it would send a lawyer to the hearing.

The case comes as Germany’s justice ministry weighs up new laws that would force social media companies to set up clear channels for registering complaints and hire legally qualified ombudsmen to carry out deletions.

Online platforms that fail meet such legal requirements could be hit with fines calculated on the basis of their global annual turnover or face on-the-spot fines of up to €500,000 if they neglect to remove posts in breach of German hate-speech law within 24 hours.

Modamani is currently learning German and working at a fast-food restaurant in Berlin. In an interview with the tabloid Bild published last August, he said he had not known who Merkel was when he took the selfie, merely inferring that she must have been an important person because of the throng of people around her. Other Syrians had informed him later, he said. “After that I knew she was the boss of Germany.”