Syrian refugee Anas Modamani waited with his mobile phone ready at the entrance to his shelter in Berlin on September 10, 2015 – and when German Chancellor Angela Merkel emerged, he snapped a selfie.
The photo quickly went viral, becoming a symbol for Merkel’s refugee policy, when she opened Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. Overnight, Modamani became one of the most recognisable refugees in Germany.
“That photo changed my life,” Modamani told Al Jazeera.
Since then, however, the photo has appeared in numerous false stories on social media linking him to attacks across Europe, including the deadly truck attack at a Berlin Christmas market. He was also falsely identified as one of the refugees who set fire to a sleeping homeless man in Berlin last December.
The first false post that Modamani could pinpoint was in March 2016, when his photo was identified as Najim Laachraoui, one of the terrorists behind the Brussels bombings in March 2016; the false story claimed that Merkel “took a selfie with a terrorist”.
“I cried when I saw it,” said Modamani, 19. “I want to live in peace in Germany. I fled from the war and bloodshed in Syria to live in safety … I was too afraid to leave my house after I saw what people wrote about me. This is not just my problem. It’s a problem of our time.”
As months passed and more posts started appearing on Facebook, Modamani began legal proceedings against the social media giant, claiming it had failed to take sufficient action against the defamatory posts he flagged. Through his lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, he filed for an injunction against Facebook’s European subsidiary, Facebook Ireland Ltd. The first court hearing took place in the southern German town of Wurzburg this month, and a ruling is expected on March 7.
“We think that Facebook has to delete all defaming content … We want the photo to be deleted everywhere on the platform, and we want Facebook to take action that the photo will not be uploaded again,” Jun said in a video on his website. “We see Facebook as a content provider, as a journalistic medium, which through its guidelines, algorithms and journalist-bots, influences which content we see and in what way.”
A Facebook spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the social network had already disabled access to offending content identified by Modamani’s lawyer, “so we do not believe that legal action here is necessary or that it is the most effective way to resolve the situation”. There is no technology readily available to, as Jun requested, search for and identify each potentially defamatory post by using the original photo or an altered version, Martin Munz, a lawyer for Facebook, said during the court hearing in Wurzburg.
I want to make a life for myself here. Syria has my heart, but Germany is my second home now.
Facebook, which has nearly two billion monthly active users worldwide, was criticised for its role in the spread of fake news during the US presidential campaign.
“We don’t want to be the arbiters of the truth … Saying we can’t do this ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t want to take responsibility,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, told Germany’s Bild newspaper. The company has been testing a “fake news” filter in Germany, working with third-party fact checkers to identify hoaxes.
Thomas Noetzel, a political science professor at the University of Marburg, noted that the posts about Modamani were also an attack on Merkel. The case comes as the German government has been considering legislation to fine social networks that fail to swiftly delete illicit content.
“[The Modamani posts] are grist for the mill of right-wing populists, by claiming that she let dangerous people into the country,” Noetzel told Al Jazeera, noting that Facebook should do more to combat such incidents. “Even if it just provides a platform, it has to take responsibility for it. I think Facebook doesn’t meet its social and political obligations in this case.”
Modamani, meanwhile, says he simply wants people to stop using his photo in malicious posts.
“I want to make a life for myself here,” he said. “Syria has my heart, but Germany is my second home now. I’ve lived through the war in Syria for years. It became more and more dangerous and I got to a point where I couldn’t see any more blood being spilled.”
He arrived in Germany in July 2015 after leaving his friends and family behind in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus. His arduous, dangerous journey took him across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece in a rickety boat. From there, he followed the Balkan route to central Europe, moving from one crowded refugee settlement to the next.
“It was one of the toughest times in my life,” he recalled. “I had little to eat, I didn’t speak English and my family wasn’t with me.”
He now has a foster family and friends in Berlin, works for a fast-food chain and takes German language classes. He wants to study and find a better job in Germany, but he remains uncertain about his future, concerned about how the now-infamous photo could be misused, or how anyone who searches for him online may see him connected to “terrorism”.
“I’m scared thinking about it, even when I just send off an application online,” he said. “It makes me feel helpless and powerless.”