IT Law

Facebook sued over disseminating “defamatory fake-news”

Social media such as Facebook are often misused for spreading hate speech and fake news. An important legal question in this respect is to what extent Facebook & Co. may be liable for potentially defamatory comments made by third parties. Just recently, an attorney filed for an injunction both against Facebook Ireland Ltd. and the author of the comments before Würzburg’s District Court (Landgericht Würzburg).

Facebook sued over disseminating “defamatory fake-news” ©-Erwin-Wodicka-Fotolia

Attorney Chan-jo Jun filed the application on behalf of his client, arguing that Facebook users posted defamatory allegations on a massive scale. According to the application, the posts include unjust accusations against his client, a Syrian refugee, in relation to serious criminal offences he allegedly committed.

More specifically, his client is accused of allegedly belonging to the group of perpetrators who set a homeless person on fire in Berlin. In other posts, he is falsely accused of having driven a lorry into the crowds of Berlin’s Christmas Market. As part of this false news, the authors also posted a photo of him along with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

According to the attorney’s statement, numerous of his coworkers reported the disparaging posts against his client to Facebook. However, the social network remained inactive and declined to remove the posts. The network allegedly stated that the defamatory fake-news were not a violation of the “Community standards”.

Facebook must act against criminal content upon becoming aware of it

The court hearing in the matter is scheduled for 6 February 2017 and we are excited to see whether the applied for injuction will indeed be granted, among others, against Facebook. It is our view that an operator of an internet platform has no general obligation to control users’ posts in relation to possible criminal content. Such general obligation to control would require a very high effort by personnel. However, this changes as soon as the victim or a third party notifies the operator of the offence. In such case, the operator may not remain inactive and must remove such posts without delay. Otherwise, the network may also be held liable for an infringement of personality rights.

What should Facebook users do in case of fake-news or hate speech?

Users of social media should under no circumstances share posts containing hate speech or defamatory fake-news. Otherwise, they generally become accomplices to the infringement and civil measures may be taken against them due to an infringement of personality rights. Furthermore, a criminal prosecution may also follow, e.g. for offences such as insult, slander or hate speech.

Christian Solmecke is a partner at the law firm WILDE BEUGER SOLMECKE. He is the author of numerous legal publications in the area of internet and IT law. He is also an associate lecturer for social media law at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

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