Wildly exaggerated Breitbart story about church fire stirs outrage in Germany

If you’re an avid reader of Breitbart’s European coverage, you could be forgiven for having thought a huge mob of extremist-sympathizers had burned down a German church to ring in the new year.

“At New Year’s Eve celebrations in Dortmund a mob of more than 1,000 men chanted ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ launched fireworks at police, and set fire to a historic church,” read the opening sentence of a Breitbart story published on Jan. 3. Technically speaking, they get a few things right. The day in question was New Year’s Eve. The location was Dortmund. Some men chanted “Allahu Akhbar,” which translates to “God is greater.” A church did briefly catch fire due to a firework.

But the story conflated and bloated those bits of information until they became unrecognizable to the people who were there

Ruhr Nachrichten, the German outlet on which Breitbart based much of its falsehoods, wrote that Breitbart had used their journalism to gin up “fake news, hate and propaganda.” German police who were in the area reportedly “shook our heads in disbelief when we saw how this operation was politicized.”

The image Breitbart conjured was one of chaos and danger. What actually happened, according to multiple reports, was a large group of people set off fireworks, one of which hit netting around a nearby church and briefly caught fire, causing no real damage. 

The image Breitbart conjured was one of chaos and danger. 

At some point, a group of men in the crowd raised the flag of the Free Syrian Army and shouted in approval of a ceasefire in Syria, where there is an ongoing civil war. Police said yes, some people had been unruly at the gathering, but that it was a quiet New Year’s Eve by comparison to years past. 

Breitbart’s article tried to link German migrants from “North Africa” to a violent church-burning mob, an event that would surely have caused another round of political turmoil in the country had it turned out to be real. German politicians and citizens have hotly debated the nation’s policy on whether and how many migrants would be let into the country, and the issue has become more politicized as German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who initially championed the idea of allowing a large influx of migrants into the country from nations such as Syria — is fighting to win a fourth term at the head of the country.

Breitbart plans to start German and French editions to beef up its presence in Europe, alongside its British version based in London. The website, which was run by top Donald Trump aide Stephen Bannon until Bannon decided to jump into the Trump campaign, is known for its white nationalist bent and for hosting sections of its site such as “black crime.” Bannon once described his site as a “platform for the alt-right,” which is something of a catch-all phrase for a collection of far-right ideologies, including white supremacism.

German officials have long worried about the possibility of wildly embellished and outright fake news spreading throughout their country ahead of elections just as it did prior to the presidential election in the United States. Genuine media outlets, too, worry that this might just be the beginning.

BONUS: As predicted, Donald Trump wakes up and rants about Meryl Streep on Twitter

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