German court rules against Syrian refugee in Facebook fake news case

A court in Germany this week ruled against a Syrian refugee who filed a lawsuit against Facebook after a photo of himself with Chancellor Angela Merkel was used in false news posts linking him to terrorism.

The refugee, Anas Modamani, was seeking a temporary injunction against Facebook that would have forced the company to prevent the photo from being shared by users in Germany. But in a preliminary ruling handed down Tuesday, the Wuerzburg district court said that Facebook was neither a “perpetrator nor a participant” in the “undisputable defamation” carried out by its users, Reuters reports. The court also said that as a hosting provider, Facebook was not responsible for preemptively removing offensive content, citing European e-commerce law.

The photo of Modamani taking a selfie with Merkel in September 2015 has been widely shared in Facebook posts that inaccurately linked him to various incidents, including the 2016 bombing at the Brussels airport. Other posts linked Modamani to an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last year, and an incident where three men set fire to a homeless man in Berlin.

In court, Facebook argued that it was technically impossible to preemptively block posts that misuse the photo, while Modamani’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, disagreed, calling the company’s argument “ridiculous” in February. Jun said that he reported the image to Facebook as recently as Monday, and that the social network refused to take it down because it did not violate its community standards.

“We appreciate that this is a very difficult situation for Mr. Modamani,” Facebook said in a statement to The New York Times following the ruling. “Regarding the ruling, we are pleased that the court shares our view that the legal action initiated was not merited or the most effective way to resolve the situation.” The company added that it had “disabled access to content” that was “accurately reported” by Modamani’s lawyers.

Facebook has come under intense legal scrutiny in Germany, where regulators have pressured the company to more actively combat hate speech and fake news on its platform. Facebook has joined other web companies in an agreement to review and remove hate speech more quickly, and earlier this year, it launched its fake news filtering system in Germany.

Tuesday’s ruling can be appealed within one month of its publication, the court said. Jun told reporters that Modamani, who was not present at the ruling, has not decided whether he will appeal.

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