In Berlin police have denied a story spread on social media that a 13-year-old girl was abducted and raped by refugees and that police subsequently tried to cover the incident up.
A Russian television channel reported that the girl was taken into sexual captivity for days and that police had tried to suppress it from going public. The report then spread quickly through German social media.
But in a press release published on Tuesday police in the capital said their investigations showed that, while the girl had gone missing for a short time, she was neither abducted nor raped.
Police in Bavaria, meanwhile, have started a social media campaign to discourage people from sharing rumours on social media without checking up on the truth of them first, after a post claiming a police-cover up of a sexual assault by a refugee went viral.
The original comment read: “Share, share, share… A refugee committed a rape in Traunstein… the police 'your friend and helper’ are staying quiet and aren’t telling the general public anything!!… Information from a trusted source!!!”
Local media brought the post to the police’s attention, leading to an investigation which took two days and involved eight interviews.
Eventually it turned out the rumour was related to a sexual assault which had taken place in a neighbouring town on New Year, and which had been fully reported by police.
“Chinese whispers [or telephone] is no game for adults”, police warn, saying that “a fact turns into a half truth and finally into unsustainable rumour”.
“The same is true of us as always has been: we report neutrally, transparently and actively about criminality – that is, was, and will remain the case – no matter what some so-called 'trusted source' claims,” the police wrote.
Growing sense of fear
Police warnings of this sort are nothing new. In October 2015 police in Saxony reported that “rumours have been spreading uncontrollably over the internet in the last few weeks.”
Without mentioning what specifically the rumours related to, police in the east German state warned that spreading hearsay over social media without checking the facts was creating hysteria, and “exactly that is what those who create the rumours want.”
German media have previously reported that right wing organizations such as Pegida or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have been spreading stories on social media since the summer claiming a wave of sexual assaults by refugees that have little to no basis in fact.
But since police in Cologne were slow to report publicly that there had been a string of mass sexual assaults over New Year in the city centre, anxiety about public safety and a lack of faith in the police's ability to protect has entered the mainstream.
Former Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers. Photo: DPA
Seven in ten people believe that the Cologne police did a bad job during New Year and the following days, while there was even less trust in the work of their boss Wolfgang Albers, who was forced into retirement in the fallout.
This has led to a clear erosion of confidence in public safety.
Around a third of the public would rather now avoid large masses of people – for women the number was 37 percent – with 82 percent saying they wanted more CCTV in public spaces, a poll by public broadcaster ARD published on January 7th showed.
Meanwhile nine in every ten Germans now want to see more police on the streets, a YouGov poll shows.
“It shows that a real fear exists at the moment. There is a huge amount of interest in seeing a greater police presence,” Holger Geißler from YouGov told The Local.
Police still trusted
But despite all this, public trust in the law enforcement is staying surprisingly strong.
The poll actually shows an improvement on 2015, with 69 percent of respondents saying they see the police as their 'friend and helper', as opposed to 54 percent last year.
“People still trust the police, but believe that there were not enough personnel in Cologne at New Year to deal with the problem,” Geißler explains.
Police outside Cologne cathedral in early January. Photo: DPA
“One would expect to see a loss in trust, but there is no evidence for it in out data.”
But the pollster also believes that there is a recognition among the authorities that trying to hide facts on crimes committed by immigrants is counter-productive
The the firing of Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers and his press secretary were a sign that massaging the facts is now seen as outdated, Geißler argues.
“We've probably reached the high point of political correctness,” he concludes.