'Allahu akbar'-chanting Muslim mob torches Germany’s oldest church. Not.

'Allahu akbar'-chanting Muslim mob torches Germany’s oldest church. Not.
3 min read
07 Jan, 2017
A story by right-wing website Breitbart claiming a Muslim mob torched a German church has faced a backlash from European media and politicians, as fake news threatens the pre-election climate.
Germany issues a fake news warning as right-wing site Breitbart turns to Europe [Getty]

Why is right-wing website Breitbart launching German and French language sites? It must be election year.

The alt-right online platform credits itself with helping Donald Trump get elected to the White House, with its editor Stephen Bannon appointed the president-elect's campaign manager and since landed a top job as Washington's chief strategist.

Bannon was described in an October 2015 profile by Bloomberg Politics as "the most dangerous political operative in America".

And the Clinton campaign accused him of presiding over a website that "peddles divisive, at times racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories".

Now as Germany and France enter their respective election years - and Breitbart announcing in November it was turning its focus to Europe - the political order is at its most vulnerable.

And just seven days into 2017, German media and politicians have already had to quash a fake news story after Breitbart claimed a 1,000-strong mob had set fire to a historic church on New Year's Eve.

The gang - suggested to be Muslim refugees - apparently chanted "Allahu akbar" ["God is greatest"] as they torched the building in the western city of Dortmund, said Breitbart's report, which was widely shared on social media.

Tens of thousands read the 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 gathering "around the flag of the Free Syrian Army", which Breitbart claims are collaborators of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

The city's police were quick to quash the claims and clarified that no "extraordinary or spectacular" incidents had marred the festivities.

What actually did happen that evening?

Stray fireworks did start a small blaze, but only on netting covering scaffolding on the church and it was put out after about 12 minutes, the local newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten reported.

The paper's editor slammed Breitbart for "using our online reports for fake news, hate and propaganda". 

While justice minister of Hesse state, Eva Kühne-Hörmann, said that "the danger is that these stories spread with incredible speed and take on lives of their own".

The story highlights the growing anti-immigration, anti-Islamic sentiment which has gripped post-Brexit Europe as the continent grapples with the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War and deadly terror attacks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel - who is running for a fourth term - has acknowledged that her Christian Democrat party's liberal "open-door" policy is losing her popularity behind the surging anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.

But Breitbart's story has also sparked concerns over the spike in fake news sites masquerading as legitimate media outlets in return for revenue-generating clickbait.

"Populism and political extremes are growing in Western democracies," Merkel has previously warned, adding that fake news was "reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms, and we have to learn to deal with them".

Bild - Germany's top-selling daily - has also this week predicted trouble ahead warning Breitbart could seek to "aggravate the tense political climate in Germany".

With Trump's Bannon-managed nationalism-fuelled campaign yeilding a surprise election win, similar methods of information manipulation could cause more shock political upsets this year.

Breitbart has declined to comment on the story.