Life might have turned out differently for Anas Modamani had it not been for the selfie he took. Then he wouldn't have had to hide out in the apartment of a friend in the town of Bitterfeld, Germany, after suddenly falling under suspicion of being a terrorist. But he also wouldn't have been put on the cover of Stern magazine's "Year in Review" issue or appeared on the popular talk show "Maybrit Illner."
But he did take the photo. A selfie with a woman he didn't immediately recognize at the time, but who he quickly realized was Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and, back then, still a leader advocating on behalf of refugees.
Modamani, a 19-year-old Syrian, has been haunted by this photo, which he took during his first month in Germany as a refugee. Now he is even going to court to force Facebook, the world's most powerful social network, to stop circulating manipulated photos of the event. He claims his selfie, as well as a picture of the moment taken by a news-agency photographer, have been repeatedly abused for the purposes of incitement and defamation, especially on Facebook. "People need to stop," says Modamani.
Headlines Around the World
News of the lawsuit has made headlines around the world because the story combines a number of factors: a photo that gathered attention globally at the time it was taken; Merkel and the refugee crisis; Facebook and the issue of online hate; and the powerlessness of those who are defamed online. Reporters from Britain, Canada and Brazil are all currently trying to land interviews with Modamani, the Syrian in the Merkel selfie.
I met Modamani at his host family's apartment in eastern Berlin. Sitting at the kitchen table, he spent 90 minutes telling his story, in German. He stumbles here and there, but his German is perfectly understandable. Suddenly he pauses, pulls out his iPhone and says: "Should we take a selfie?"
Modamani likes taking photos and posting them on his Facebook page, where the 19-year-old doesn't worry too much about his privacy and where, at the time our interview took place, he had 2,789 friends. Far less normal is the fact that the photo of his Merkel selfie has been systematically and repeatedly used to defame him -- at times as a "terrorist" and at others as a "violent criminal."
This Should Be a Success Story
Absent these circumstances, Modamani's integration in Germany could only be described as successful. It hasn't even been a year and a half since the high school graduate fled Daraya (a city south of Damascus that lies largely in ruins today) for Germany. Modamani is staying with a cordial host family and fills his mornings with a language course and every other afternoon with a job as a McDonald's cashier. Once he passes tests for the next two levels of German, he will be eligible to apply to study at a German university.
But he fears that the selfie he took together with the chancellor could ruin those plans. The selfie and the image by the photographer were both taken on Sept. 10, 2015, at an initial refugee reception center run by the Worker's Welfare Association (AWO) in Berlin's Spandau district. A handful of refugees that day managed to get photos together with Chancellor Merkel.
The images quickly traveled around the world, illustrating as they did Germany's welcoming embrace of refugees at the time. But those days are long gone. Modamani's image is still circulating widely on the internet today, but in entirely different contexts. It has become a symbol misappropriated by opponents of Merkel's refugee policies -- it has become a symbol of opposition to the chancellor. Mondamani may only be the means, and not the end, but he too must suffer the consequences.
The twisting of his image first began after the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March. Anonymous.Kollektiv, a Facebook page notorious for its agitation that has since been deleted, posted a link to a photomontage that included the selfie and a photo of one of the Brussels terrorists, Najim Laachraoui. The accompanying caption read: "Dumb, dumber, Angela: Did Merkel take a selfie with one of the Brussels terrorists?"
Over the Easter holiday, the post went viral. Then, in early June, the image was used in a posting with the heading, "the violence-importing selfie queen" (a reference, of course, to Merkel).
Anas Modamani's case is indicative of the sheer speed and momentum with which defamation can be spread on the internet. It shows how it can be reused in new contexts without the ability to hold anyone accountable. It demonstrates how powerless those affected by such attacks can be made to feel.
The concept of "fake news," which has been a focus of intense discussion in recent weeks, can be so abstract that it is difficult to grasp or pin down. Modamani's case shows what can happen when lies about an individual are constantly circulated on the web in ways that weren't even possible only a few years ago.
More recently, the photo of the selfie began circulating again in December. Someone had used Photoshop to superimpose the image onto a photo of the semi-truck used in the terrorist attack in Berlin, with the caption: "Merkel's dead." A week later, Modamani's image began circulating again, only this time it had been distorted. Modamani's face has been made thinner in an attempt to make him look like one of the five Syrians arrested in Berlin, suspected of having set fire to a homeless man and his belongings at Christmas.
"They're against Angela Merkel, not against me," Modamani says. "But I want it to finally stop."
A Problem that Won't Go Away
At some point, he hopes he will be able to fly back to Syria or to Lebanon to see his parents and siblings, who stayed behind, and he is concerned that airport authorities will find his image on the internet with the word "terrorist" next to it. He fears that he will meet a woman and she will Google his name. He is afraid that the defamation will haunt him for years to come.
Modamani says people sometimes write to him on Facebook and ask him nastily when he plans to finally return to Syria. He says he can't always find the right German words to reply. He even stopped using Facebook for a few weeks, but now he is back online because of the latest photomontage. He wants to see what is being written about him.
His host mother Anke Meeuw sees a lot more than he does. She clicks through the profiles of people who are making defamatory postings and is well-connected with groups active in the fight against hateful agitation on social networks. She says she now ignores most posts that fall "under the radar" -- in other words, things that don't go viral.
A Small Victory
Sometimes she writes to people who share the postings. And often it gets ugly. After the attacks perpetrated by refugees in the towns of Ansbach and Würzburg, the Bavarian state chapter of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party posted its own photomontage. It included images of the attacks in Würzburg, Reutlingen and Ansbach. Underneath was the image of Merkel and Modamani, although his face had been slightly pixilated. The text read: "Migrant terror in Germany: Without Merkel, the perpetrators wouldn't be here." It included the hashtag #Merkelsummer.
In response, Meeuw wrote a letter to the head of the party's Bavarian state chapter. In it, she described what these associations mean for her, her family and their foster son. The politician then deleted the image, but also blocked her from the page, she says. A minor victory.
The 41-year-old says she has an even deeper reason for fighting back. She wants to prevent "right-wing populist agitation from becoming socially acceptable." She tells her foster son: "We have to take action against this -- otherwise it will never stop."
A Lawyer Who Is No Stranger To Facebook
An acquaintance put her in touch with Chan-jo Jun, a lawyer from Würzburg who has attempted several times to hold Facebook legally accountable for disseminating hateful speech on its platform. So far, he has made a considerable effort and attracted a lot of attention, but he has not been successful legally.
Jun is now seeking a temporary injunction to prohibit people like AfD politicians from sharing the posting about the homeless man, but also obligating Facebook to ensure that the image can no longer be shared and that it will be automatically blocked. He's basing his legal argument on Paragraph 186 of the German Criminal Code on "defamation," which prohibits the assertion or dissemination of a fact about a person which may defame that person or negatively affect public opinion about that person unless it can be proven true.
Should it be Facebook's job to filter out defamatory content before it is posted? The current standard is that social media platforms like Facebook only have to take problematic content down after they have been informed about it. In practice, however, it doesn't happen often enough.
Jun says the problem is that Facebook's own community standards, its internal guidelines on what needs to be deleted, is much more loosely formulated than German law. And that's why problems keep popping up for people like Modamani.
Facebook: We Take Responsibility 'Very Seriously'
For its part, Facebook asserts that it adheres to Germany law. The company has since deleted all posts that are listed in the temporary injunction request.
Asked for a response, a company spokesperson sent the following statement: "When we are informed of content that is in clear violation of German law, we respect this and delete the content in compliance." But: "a whole lot" of the content that gets reported "does not violate German law." The company also states that it takes its responsibility very seriously.
To test how seriously Facebook takes such reports on a daily basis, I reported one image disparaging Modamani as a vile criminal. After our meeting, I used the report function to register a complaint about a photo suggesting Modamani had been involved in the attack on the homeless man.
The image had been posted by a certain "Dorothee K." (or some user pretending to be a woman, since Facebook identities can never be truly verified) at 4:06 a.m. on Dec. 28. The user has more than 1,800 friends and most of the postings on her profile are about Islam, along with many links to pages filled with conspiracy theories. From this page alone, the image with Modamani got shared 67 times.
Limited Reporting Options
Facebook's reporting options still aren't suitable for instances like this. The network has announced that it will soon add the "It's a fake news story" to the pull-down menu of reasons a story is being reported in Germany. Those reported stories would then be reviewed by community fact-checkers. But it will take several more weeks for the system to become operational.
Of all the bad options available, I click through to find the most appropriate one. "I think it shouldn't be on Facebook," "It's annoying or not interesting," -> send to Facebook for review.
I sent the message at 9:46 a.m. At 6:57 p.m. the same day, I received a message on my mobile phone. That went fast.
A "message from the help team" informed me that Facebook had reviewed the photo in question and added: "Although it does not violate our community standards, it was still right to inform us." According to the message, defaming a 19-year-old as a vile criminal is not a violation of Facebook's community standards.
The help team also provided an additional suggestion, noting how I could block Dorothee K. Blocking, though, merely means that neither of us would be able to view each other's profile or contact each other again on Facebook.
It makes it sound as if it is about something personal, as if the error was made on the part of the person who reported the content. The fact is that the responsibility lies with the people who create and disseminate such defamation. In the case of Anas Modamani, it is likely he will still be dealing with the consequences of these images for years to come.
"I love Facebook -- I found an apartment through the network," he says during our meeting. "But I also hate Facebook because this Photoshop stuff simply never ceases."