German media and politicians warned Friday against an election-year spike in fake news after ultra-conservative website Breitbart claimed a “mob” chanting “Allahu Akhbar” had set fire to a church on New Year’s Eve.
After the report by the U.S. website was widely shared on social media, police in the city of Dortmund clarified that no “extraordinary or spectacular” incidents had marred the festivities. The local newspaper, Ruhr Nachrichten, meanwhile charged that elements of its online reporting on New Year’s Eve had been distorted to produce “fake news, hate and propaganda.”
The justice minister of Hesse state, Eva Kuehne-Hoermann, said that “the danger is that these stories spread with incredible speed and take on lives of their own.”
The controversy highlights a deepening divide between backers of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal stance toward refugees and a right-wing movement that opposes immigration, fears Islam and distrusts the government and media.
Tens of thousands clicked and shared the Breitbart.com story with the headline “Revealed: 1,000-Man Mob Attack Police, Set Germany’s Oldest Church Alight on New Year’s Eve.” It said the men had “chanted Allahu Akhbar [God is Greatest], launched fireworks at police, and set fire to a historic church,” while also massing “around the flag of Al Qaeda and Islamic State collaborators the ‘Free Syrian Army’.”
The local newspaper charged that Breitbart had combined and exaggerated unconnected incidents to create a picture of chaos and of foreigners celebrating terrorism.
Stray fireworks did indeed start a small blaze, but only on netting covering scaffolding on the church, and it was put out after about 12 minutes, it said. The roof was not on fire and the church is not Germany’s oldest.
Dortmund police on Thursday said its officers had handled 185 missions that night, sharply down from 421 the previous year. Overall the squad leader had judged the night as “rather average to quiet,” in part thanks to a large police presence.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily charged that Breitbart had used exaggerations and factual errors to create “an image of chaotic civil war-like conditions in Germany, caused by Islamist aggressors.” It said the article “may be a foretaste” of what’s to come ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September as some websites spread “misinformation and distortion in order to diminish trust in established institutions.”
Justice Minister Heiko Maas in mid-December warned that Germany would use its laws against deliberate disinformation, and that freedom of expression does not protect “slander and defamation.”
Germany’s top-selling Bild daily also saw more trouble ahead, pointing to the fact Breitbart’s former editor Steve Bannon had been appointed as U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist. It warned that Breitbart—a platform for the so-called “alt-right” movement, with plans to launch German and French language sites—could seek to “aggravate the tense political climate in Germany.”