BERLIN • German media and politicians yesterday warned of an election-year spike in fake news after ultra-conservative website Breitbart claimed a "mob" chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) had set fire to a church on New Year's Eve.
After the report by the US website was widely shared on social media, the 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".
Central Hesse state's Justice Minister, Ms Eva Kuehne-Hoermann, said "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 towards 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 Akbar', 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'."
HARD TO CONTROL
The danger is that these stories spread with incredible speed and take on lives of their own.
MS EVA KUEHNE-HOERMANN, Justice Minister of Hesse state.
The local newspaper charged that Breitbart had combined and exaggerated unconnected incidents. 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.
The Dortmund police said on Thursday that its officers had handled 185 missions that night, sharply down from 421 the previous year.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily charged that Breitbart had used exaggeration 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 is 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 last month warned that Germany would use its laws against 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 that Breitbart's former editor, Mr Steve Bannon, had been appointed as US 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".