BERLIN — On a September day in 2015, Syrian refugee Anas Modamani took one of Germany’s most emblematic selfies. Snapping himself alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to his Berlin shelter, he captured an image that became a symbol of her momentous decision to allow more than 1 million asylum seekers into Germany.
It also turned Modamani into the target of far-right conspiracies. Fake stories and doctored photographs first linked him to the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, then to the Berlin Christmas market attack in December. Another image even falsely claimed that he was a suspect in a recent assault on a homeless man.
So now he is taking aim at the messenger: Facebook.
A lawsuit, which goes to court Monday, is seeking to compel Facebook to act faster — even preemptively — to remove such material and thereby concede that the social network is also a media company and therefore liable for the content it publishes.
The suit marks the latest attempt to hold Facebook more accountable for an upsurge in fake news. Germany, Europe’s most populous nation, with cherished notions of personal privacy and a low tolerance for propaganda, has emerged as a particularly fierce battleground for the outlet.
“Facebook only deletes those URLs that are pointed out to them in written form,” said Modamani’s attorney, Chan-jo Jun. “We are fighting for all reposts to be deleted.”
As Facebook has come under fire for allowing the spread of fake news, the company has promised to take steps to combat the problem while maintaining that it is merely a platform for sharing information, not generating it.
Europeans have been particularly aggressive. In May, the European Commission agreed on a new code of conduct with Facebook and other social-media platforms under which the sites would respond to reports of questionable content within 24 hours.
But nowhere in Europe has the pressure been stronger than in Germany — a country where the memory of Nazi propaganda and Cold War-era machinations have created a culture strongly averse to hate speech and false reports. Proliferating far-right and pro-Russian websites also have trained their sights on Merkel, who has put the issue of fake news front and center in the public debate as she campaigns for reelection in a vote set for September.
In response to calls for change, Facebook last month announced the start of a new effort in Germany in partnership with the nonprofit journalism network Correctiv. With the help of professional journalists, the social-media site would label as potentially suspect or false reports that users share that are identified as fake.
Yet Germany may push Facebook to go even further. The country’s Justice Ministry is monitoring how quickly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube delete potentially libelous fake news, reports inciting hate and other content considered illegal under domestic law. The German government has threatened that if the results show that Facebook has not made progress since a similar test in September, the country will force the company to comply.
“We’re considering concrete legislative measures,” said Justice Ministry spokesman Philip Scholz. He added, “We’re also considering fines as a final option.”
Modamani’s attorney has sought to sway German prosecutors to build a case against Facebook for years. Although prosecutors in Hamburg and Munich took a look at his claims that the network was allowing the spread of incendiary and hateful material, they have thus far declined to take action.
In the Modamani case, the suit is seeking to force Facebook not only to delete specific false or illegal posts reported by users, but also to adopt special filters that search the network and remove all other references to that content. Jun said that although Facebook claims to have deleted fake posts attacking his client, he found reposts of the images as recently as last week.
The claims largely center on three widely spread images that Jun claims could still be circulating on Facebook. One shows the selfie of Modamani and Merkel next to an image of security footage of a group of young men suspected of trying to set a homeless man on fire at a Berlin subway station on Christmas Eve. The face of one of the suspects is circled and falsely identified as Modamani.
“Merkel made selfie with one of the offenders in 2015!” it reads.
In another post that circulated on Facebook, a photo collage puts Modamani and Merkel against the backdrop of a Berlin Christmas market following the December attack there. The caption reads, “They are Merkel’s dead.”
An earlier claim falsely linked Modamani to last year’s Brussels attacks, alleging that Merkel “took a selfie with a terrorist.” The image was initially posted by a user called “Anonymous” and, according to Jun, was reposted at least 1,000 times. Many times more users saw it.
“I love Facebook — I found an apartment through the network,” Modamani told Spiegel Online last month. “But I also hate Facebook, because this Photoshop stuff simply never ceases.”
In a statement, Facebook said it had “already quickly disabled access to content” that Modamani’s legal representatives had reported. “So we do not believe that legal action here is necessary or that it is the most effective way to resolve the situation.”