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Syrian refugee sues Facebook over fake news

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Anas Modamani’s selfie with Angela Merkel was used in several false stories linking him to terrorism

Merkel Visits Migrants' Shelter And School

A Syrian refugee has filed a lawsuit against Facebook in Germany, after a selfie he took with Chancellor Angela Merkel was used in a series of fake news stories linking him to terrorism. The refugee, Anas Modamani, is seeking an injunction against Facebook that would require the social network to prevent the photo from being shared, and to delete all false news stories that have previously used it. A court in Würzburg heard opening remarks in the case on Monday, The New York Times reports.

The photo went viral after it was taken in August 2015, in part because many saw it as symbolic of Merkel’s open-door policy toward asylum seekers. But it was later used in Facebook posts that falsely linked last year’s terrorist attack in Brussels to refugees, as well as other posts that linked Modamani to a December attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Modamani asked Facebook to remove the offending posts, and the article linking him to the Brussels bombings was taken down. But by then, it had already been shared many times, and other false reports have continued to spread.

Officials in Germany have criticized Facebook in recent months for allowing hate speech and fake news to spread on its platform. Facebook, Google, and Twitter agreed in 2015 to review and remove hate speech in Germany within 24 hours, and Facebook recently launched its fake news filtering system in both Germany and France ahead of national elections in each country. But German lawmakers have considered tougher legislation, including a proposal that would fine Facebook for every fake news article it fails to remove.

In court on Monday, Modamani’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, argued that the 19-year-old continues to be a victim of libel, and that Facebook should have done more to prevent others from sharing the selfie. Facebook’s lawyers countered by arguing that the company lacks the technical ability to block posts that misuse the photo.

“There are billions of postings each day,” said Facebook lawyer Martin Munz, as quoted by Bloomberg. “You want us to employ a sort of wonder machine to detect each misuse. Such a machine doesn’t exist.”

Jun disputed that argument, pointing to Facebook’s controversial history of policing nudity and pornography. “Volkswagen also can’t just say: ‘Well, sorry we build too many cars we can’t really make sure they’re all safe,’” Jun said, according to Bloomberg. “If it’s about breasts or child pornography, Facebook is very well able to detect all pictures.”

A ruling in the case is expected on March 3rd.