BERLIN — It was every God-fearing Christian’s worst nightmare about Muslim refugees. “Revealed,” the Breitbart News headline screamed, “1,000-Man Mob Attack Police, Set Germany’s Oldest Church Alight on New Year’s Eve.”
The only problem: Police say that’s not what happened that night in the western city of Dortmund.
The Breitbart report has triggered a backlash in Germany, igniting fresh concerns over the manipulation of information and the societal cost of revenue-generating clickbait.
The report comes amid a rash of misleading rumors and social-media claims about refugees in the aftermath of the recent Berlin Christmas market attack, including one missive falsely linking a refugee who once took a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a holiday season assault on a homeless man.
As they did in the United States during the presidential campaign, fake and misleading reports are popping up across Europe, particularly as a string of countries including Germany are poised for major elections. Yet the Breitbart report on Germany, critics say, shows how the disseminators of such tidbits trade not only in pure fiction but also in skillfully sown innuendo steeped in exaggeration.
“We shook our heads in disbelief when we saw how this operation was politicized” by Breitbart, said Gunnar Wortmann, a spokesman for the Dortmund police.
The report was largely aggregated from the local news outlet Ruhr Nachrichten, which also lashed out at Breitbart for “using our online reports for fake news, hate and propaganda.”
The story drew blistering critiques from others in the German media, including pundits who worry that it signals an attempt by right-wing outlets to poison the public debate as Merkel — blasted by President-elect Donald Trump for her open-door policy on refugees — seeks a fourth term this year. She has declared the spread of false news a pox on Germany that must be cured. The government is planning to introduce a measure that could impose large fines on social-media firms like Facebook if they fail to take immediate action to take down such stories.
“The ‘Breitbart’ report about New Year’s Eve in Dortmund could be a taste of the upcoming parliamentary election campaign,” warned an editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. “Websites such as ‘Breitbart News’ could increasingly use misinformation and distortion in order to diminish trust in established institutions.”
Breitbart — formerly headed by Trump’s top aide, Stephen K. Bannon — did not respond to a request for comment.
The way Breitbart tells it in its Jan. 3 piece, a New Year’s Eve “mob” in the industrial city of Dortmund “began throwing fireworks into crowds of visitors, which also included families with children. Asked by officers to stop, the mob turned to pelt fireworks at police instead.”
Fireworks, the story says, were launched at “St Reinolds, Germany’s oldest church, setting the roof alight.” The article strongly suggests, but never directly states, that the responsible parties were unruly Muslim migrants. It cites federal police spokesman Volker Stall as saying a “large number of young men from North Africa” were in town who displayed an “aggressive mood” toward the public and police.
The piece also cites a video tweeted by Ruhr Nachrichten that showed men apparently chanting “Allahu akbar” around the flag of the Free Syrian Army, a group defined by Breitbart as “al-Qaeda and Islamic State collaborators.”
Police in Dortmund do not dispute that several incidents took place that night, but nothing to the extremes suggested by the Breitbart report. In fact, they said, the evening was comparatively calmer than previous New Year’s Eves.
As for setting “alight” the roof of “Germany’s oldest church”: A firework did hit the netting covering the church’s construction scaffold. It caught fire, and was put out without damage to the church — which is not Germany’s oldest.
Officials said there were a large number of revelers in the square that night, including Germans. Wortmann said it remains unclear who lighted the offending projectile or whether the incident was even intentional.
In a separate incident, a group of migrants, reportedly celebrating the cease-fire in Syria, did rally together and chant “Allahu akbar,” a phrase sometimes associated with terrorist attacks but also common in Muslim prayers and celebrations. In the video, they indeed hoisted a flag — of the mainstream Syrian opposition, which is supported by the U.S. government.
In an interview, Stall, the police spokesman quoted by Breitbart, described another incident in far less dramatic terms. He said a group of about 35 people who appeared to be migrants obstructed traffic in front of a McDonald’s and, for a brief period, refused to move.
He said the group initially resisted police requests to move on, but he said he was unaware whether any of them had acted aggressively toward the public.
One Syrian migrant appears to have thrown a single firework that landed at the feet of an officer, he said. That same night, a German man, he added, also threw a firework at officers.
Elsewhere in Germany, especially in Cologne — the site of mass sexual assaults a year earlier — authorities did report several arrests of men with migrant backgrounds for aggressive or otherwise illegal behavior. Police in Dortmund said that they did find the number of migrants gathered that night to be unusually high, but nevertheless described the evening as relatively calm.
Recent rumors on social media have appeared to embellish stories to fuel anti-refugee sentiment when the facts themselves may have done the job almost as well. On Christmas Eve, for instance, police said a group of young refugees were suspected of trying to set fire to a homeless person at a Berlin subway station.
Soon afterward, a photo collage emerged on social media blaming Anas Modamani — the young Syrian man who famously took a selfie with Merkel in 2015 that quickly went viral as being emblematic of her open-door approach.
“Homeless person set on fire — Merkel made a selfie with one of the offenders in 2015,” the collage’s caption read.
Modamani, however, is not a suspect in the case, and his attorney fired off letters to Facebook and individuals who shared the image, threatening legal action if they were not taken down.
It was one of several viral threads that emerged after the Berlin attack on Dec. 19, when a truck was driven into a crowd, killing 12. A Tunisian man suspected of being the attacker is now dead.
“It’s a potpourri of real and fake news that creates the impression that something is happening always and everywhere,” said André Wolf, spokesman of Mimikama, an Austria-based organization devoted to exposing fake news.