Breitbart wrote an article about New Year's Eve in Dortmund on Tuesday with the headline “Revealed: 1,000-man mob attack police, set Germany’s oldest church alight on New Year’s Eve”.
“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,” the alt-right website reported.
The report was attributed to local news site Ruhr Nachrichten, which fired back on Wednesday, accusing Breitbart of “using our online reports for fake news, hate and propaganda.”
Ruhr Nachrichten pointed out how Breitbart attributed separate unconnected incidents to a larger, collective “mob”.
There was in fact a total of around 1,000 people gathered to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Leeds Square, including “large and small groups” of young, foreign men as well as families with children, according to Ruhr Nachrichten.
The original report by the local news site from that night describes how some individuals did start launching fireworks from within the crowd towards police, who told them to stop but were ignored. Broadcaster WDR reported that officers then issued orders for some people to leave and took some into custody.
While Breitbart wrote that the “mob” set the roof of Germany's oldest church on fire, Ruhr Nachrichten pointed out that this was also not accurate.
St. Reinold is not Germany's oldest church – that would be the Cathedral of Trier – and a small fire had started on some netting on scaffolding around the church, not the roof, due to one firework.
And while Breitbart states that the “fireworks were launched at” the church, there was no indication from local news outlets or from the fire services that the fire had been started intentionally.
The fire was small and lasted 12 minutes before firefighters put it out, Ruhr Nachrichten reports.
Police told local media that overall it was a quiet night.
In a report released on Thursday, Dortmund police stated that the number of times they were called out during New Year’s celebrations this year was down from 421 in 2015-16 to 185 in 2016-17.
Breitbart also wrote that a group of Syrians gathered at the square to celebrate the ceasefire in their home country, but claimed that a video posted by a Ruhr Nachrichten journalist showed them holding up a flag of al-Qaeda and Isis collaborators.
In fact, the video shows a man holding a flag widely flown by those opposing the current government.
Ruhr Nachrichten also accuses Breitbart of overemphasizing the fact that the celebrating Syrians chanted “allahu akbar” – which means God is great.
“This statement is a Muslim prayer as normal as ‘Amen’ in the church,” Ruhr Nachrichten's editor wrote. “Fake news producers are connecting the groups of people in Leeds Square to [terrorist] attacks… The fact is: there was no sign that terrorism was being celebrated in Dortmund.”
As Benjamin Konietzny from broadcaster N-tv wrote, the Breitbart report was problematic for how it presented the events.
“There are differences in the critical details,” Konietzny stated.
“The report is a lesson on the deliberate over-twisting of facts,” wrote another journalist from the German Meedia industry publication.
Concern about fake news in election
Chancellor Angela Merkel and others have warned about the influence that fake news could have on the upcoming election this autumn, in which she is running for another term. She said in November that the country must “confront this phenomenon and if necessary, regulate it“.
Some within her conservative CDU party have even suggested that such dissemination of false information be criminalized.
Breitbart's plan to start a German news site has also ruffled some feathers, though it has been welcomed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
According to Reuters, the project has the express goal of helping elect right-wing politicians in Europe.