The Refugee Selfie with Chancellor Angela Merkel: How A “Fake News”/Facebook Defamation Suit Resulted

Ana Modamani, a refugee from Syria, took a selfie as he posed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was visiting his refugee camp in 2015 shortly she had allowed those seeking asylum from Syria to enter Germany without screening.  Modamani posted the selfie with Merke on Facebook.

At that point, the selfie took on a life of its own.  It began showing up in other places on Facebook with commentary and identification of Modamani as a terrorist. Mr. Modamani has filed suit in Germany seeking an injunction against Facebook to remove all the posts that identify him as a terrorist. His photo has appeared in connections with post about the attacks in Brussels and the Christmas market in Berlin.  Melissa Eddy, “How Refugee’s Selfie Could Change Facebook,” New York Times, February 8, 2017, p. B3.

Facebook has responded that it has taken down every post about which Mr. Modamani or his lawyer have complained.  Facebook is following its own policies that it will remove inappropriate and offensive content on its own and respond to requests for removal.  However, some of the posts are on others’ social media and Facebook does not take down those posts under its community standards processes.  Rather, Facebook has responded that Mr. Modamani’s case is one of defamation and his action lies against those who made the original posts.

 During oral arguments on the injunction question, Facebook maintained that it could not be expected to find every post and take it down, that such a requirement would be costly and burdensome.  Mr. Modanami’s lawyer argued that such a contention was ridiculous,  and that such searches and removals are done all the time, by Facebook and other social media sites.

 The court has not made its decision (March 3 is the scheduled date), but the case presents the interesting question of the obligations of social media sites to act on bases different from their community standards.  The additional question is also whether Facebook can be held liable for defamation if it did not create the content but simply does not take the content down unless the person affected notifies Facebook of its need to do so. As the judge noted, the case presents questions about personal rights in our digital worlds.

 DISCUSSION STARTERS

 Explain what happened to Mr. Modanami.

 Discuss the difference between community standards issues and defamation.