Syrian migrant launches Facebook 'fake news' legal fight

Anas Modamani with Angela Merkel Image copyright Anas Modamani
Image caption Anas Modamani posing with German leader Angela Merkel for a selfie

A Syrian migrant who posed for a selfie with Angela Merkel is suing Facebook after being falsely linked to terrorism in posts shared on the social media network.

The legal action comes as Facebook has been facing significant pressure to combat the proliferation of fake news reports on its platform.

In Germany, there have been numerous instances of false allegations on social media made against migrants and refugees.

Anas Modamani is one of those who has been the target of such false reports.

He briefly sprung to prominence in September 2015, when Angela Merkel visited the Berlin migrant shelter where he was then living.

Mr Modamani took his chance to snap a picture with the German leader.

Now aged 19, he had then arrived in Germany just a month earlier, after fleeing Darayya in Syria and travelling to Berlin via Turkey, Greece and Serbia.

But that selfie was to make him a target.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Mr Modamani has been falsely linked to terror attacks in posts on social media.

"I was first linked to attacks when my picture was circulated as being one of the Brussels attackers due to perceived resemblances between us," he told the BBC.

"When the claims started being circulated on social media, I was in Munich visiting friends.

"Some friends advised that I stay at home and avoid going out in public, which I did.

"Others encouraged me to go to the police and report what was being said about me.

"But I kind of just hoped it would go away on its own."

And for a while it did.

However, another attack, on a crowded Berlin Christmas market, and the attempted murder of a homeless man in the same city by seven young migrants, once again saw Mr Modamani falsely accused.

"At that time, I had disabled my Facebook account, but the lady who is hosting me in Germany brought them to my attention," Mr Modamani said.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption This Facebook post falsely links Mr Modamani to an attack on a Berlin homeless man.

"I was fed up with this happening again, so we discussed getting a lawyer involved."

Chan-jo Jun, a lawyer who in November 2016 prompted an investigation into Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives following a complaint alleging that the company had failed to remove racist posts, in contravention of German laws against hate speech, has taken on the case.

"Facebook is doing a very poor job with fake news," he told the BBC.

"But it is especially doing a poor job with illegal fake news.

"Not all fake news is illegal, but where it amounts to slander, as I believe this does, then it should be taken down."

Mr Jun has filed an injunction "seeking to prevent Facebook from publishing the slanderous image of the Syrian refugee Anas Modamani in the context of terrorist attacks".

A Facebook representative 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."

However, Mr Jun claims that not all of the offending content has been removed and several images falsely linking Mr Modamani to terrorist activity are still available on Facebook.

The case will be heard at a court in Wurzburg on 6 February.

Produced by Chris Bell and Sara Fayyad, UGC and Social News Team

A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.