On January 3rd, a story appeared on Breitbart’s website titled, “Revealed: 1,000-man mob attack police, set Germany’s oldest church alight on New Year’s Eve.” Since then, multiple US and international news outlets have hit back against the conservative-learning news site with claims of false or distorted reporting of the event, branding the story under the topical “fake news” rank, with some even going so far to label it a work of, “hate and propaganda”.
Breitbart’s critics included Tehran’s AFP News, the Guardian, the Independent, POLITICO, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and a few German-language papers. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, in reference to the article, stated (as translated by the Straits Times), “Breitbart has used exaggerations and factual errors to create ‘an image of chaotic civil war-like conditions in Germany, caused by Muslim aggressors.” This idea is at the core of my interest in this story—and so many other like it—and the more broad relationship between so-called “fake news” what some, including myself, identify as the existence of an increasingly false perception of hostility, even downright “culture war” between religious groups, leading to actual acts of discrimination and violence.
I will not go into great detail here about what does or does not constitute “fake news;” that discussion is beyond the scope of this post. However, I will say that I am conscious of the concerns many have raised about the misleading nature of the term, and I will avoid using it in my writing. Instead, I prefer to label misleading or inadequate reporting individually and with more nuance, on a case-by-case basis.
A fuller discussion of Breitbart’s ideological viewpoint and professionalism may be warranted at a later time. Briefly however, I would like to draw your attention to a New York Times op-ed published on January 7th, which profiles an environmental science professor named Nathan Phillips, whose criticism of Breitbart is fierce, labeling it “hate news,” that which the Times defines as “a toxic mix of lies, white-supremacist content and bullying that can inspire attacks on Muslims, gay people, women, African-Americans and others.”
My analysis is unqualified to come to any similarly definitive conclusion. Instead, I will identify and evaluate only the “facts” reported and language employed by Breitbart in their coverage of this New Years Eve event. I will present the points of contention within the original article, highlight responses from critics as well as Breitbart’s defense of the piece, and make a decision about the informational value of the article, and the implications of any misinformation presented by this increasingly popular news platform.
Claim: “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”
Source: Breitbart News (http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/01/03/dortmund-mob-attack-police-church-alight/)
Accuracy rating: Hogwash
Analysis: First, let’s highlight the major sub-claims reported by Breitbart in the article.
- “…a crowd of ‘at least 1,000 young men’ began throwing fireworks into crowds of visitors…”
- “Despite the prohibition of lighting pyrotechnics near churches, firemen had to intervenes after fireworks were launched at St. Reinolds, Germany’s oldest church, setting the roof alight.”
- “Also reported by the Ruhr Nachrichten was that ‘a group of Syrians sang in celebration of the ceasefire in Syria.’ However, a video posted to Twitter by one of the newspaper’s reporters, paired with the caption ‘Syrians celebrate the truce in their country’, shows a group of men chanting ‘Allahu Ahkbar’ around the flag of al-Qaeda and Islamic State collaborators, the ‘Free Syrian Army’.”
Right off the bat, we can see Breitbart’s logical misstep in mashing together the entire article into the one-sentence, click-bait claim, “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.” Breitbart reports that the large mob collectively engaged in all three acts: chanting ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ launching fireworks at police, and setting a historic church on fire. The actual count of individuals within the “mob” which did or did not engage in this activity is voided—Breitbart reports the entire mob as taking part in these actions, enhancing the fear factor by effectively falsifying the number of individuals—not within the mob, but that which engaged in the activities in question—and thus mischaracterizing each members of the “mob” as a violent, police- and Christian-hating Muslim.
Essentially, Breitbart’s logic went like this: a “mob” of approximately 1,000 men in Dortmund lighting off fireworks + fireworks hit a historic church and it catches fire + some people holding a Free Syrian Army flag and saying ‘Allahu Ahkbar’ (in reference to the Syrian cease fire—and not to the church burning mind you) = a mob of angry Muslims attacked police and set a church on fire while chanting ‘Allahu Ahkbar’.
I almost feel like going into detail about each of these individual points is unnecessary, as it is clear that Breitbart’s biggest mistake is in assuming a connection between these three facts (if they are facts) and then coming to their own conclusion which is unsupported by the evidence they themselves presented. Nonetheless, as a formality, let’s investigate each of these sub-claims for their accuracy.
“…a crowd of ‘at least 1,000 young men’ began throwing fireworks into crowds of visitors…”
This first point doesn’t really raise any red flags for me. None of the critics of Breitbart’s story which I came across seem to focus in on this point as being inaccurate. To me, it appears neither implausible nor relevant to this analysis that a large crowd of people would be rowdy on New Years Eve and throwing fireworks. The claim stems from a livewire published by Ruhr Nachrichten, which roughly translated does seem to state that 1,000 persons were gathered throwing fireworks, but I am not able to find any independent verification of this report. Thus I will consider this point unconfirmed, but certainly possible.
“Despite the prohibition of lighting pyrotechnics near churches, firemen had to intervenes after fireworks were launched at St. Reinolds, Germany’s oldest church, setting the roof alight.”
Similar to the above, I do not see anything relevant to this analysis in disputing this point. Interestingly, during my brief research of this claim, I did discover that in Germany, one is only allowed to purchase fireworks between December 29th and December 31st of each year, and that they can only be fired between “midnight Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.” I was not able to find anything to verify any prohibition against using pyrotechnics near churches, but to be honest, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on this point and I am willing to give Breitbart the benefit of the doubt on this since I really don’t think its relevant.
As for the next part, “firemen had to intervene after fireworks were launched at St. Reinolds, Germany’s oldest church, setting the roof alight,” I will defer to the Washington Post: “As for setting ‘alight’ the roof of ‘Germany’s oldest church’: A firework did hit the netting covering the church’s construction scaffold. It caught fire, and was put out without damage to the church — which is not Germany’s oldest.”
I don’t need to confirm this claim by the Washington Post, as Breitbart later retracted that point, stating, “Much of the media’s outcry over Breitbart News reports emanates from the scale of the fire at St. Reinold’s Church. Breitbart News is happy to correct one small part of its reporting of this incident. We referred to the church as ‘Germany’s oldest church’. In truth, while indeed an old church, this accolade belongs to the Cathedral of Trier.”
“Also reported by the Ruhr Nachrichten was that ‘a group of Syrians sang in celebration of the ceasefire in Syria.’ However, a video posted to Twitter by one of the newspaper’s reporters, paired with the caption ‘Syrians celebrate the truce in their country’, shows a group of men chanting ‘Allahu Ahkbar’ around the flag of al-Qaeda and Islamic State collaborators, the ‘Free Syrian Army’.”
First, I would like to address the implicit claim here: that the phrase “Allahu Ahkbar” is a violent, jihadist battle cry. If you think I am reading too much Breitbart’s words here, consider the following post, by Breitbart, from December 25, 2016 titled, “‘Allahu Akbar’: It means almost everything—except what the establishment media says.” This article is written by Breitbart contributor and director of Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, who is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center “Extremist Files” as “one of America’s most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists.” In the article, Spencer writes, “The war-cry is mistranslated in the Western media as ‘God is great.’ But the actual meaning is ‘Allah is greater,’ […] It is the aggressive declaration that Allah and Islam are dominant over every other form of government, religion, law or ethic, which is why Islamic jihadists in the midst of killing infidels so often shout it. One primary purpose of shouting is to ‘strike terror in the hearts of the enemies of Allah.’”
While scholars and are in agreement over the translation of the phrase being “God is greater,” “God is most great,” or “God is the greatest,” Spencer’s assertion that this means that it is inherently aggressive, or even that it is used in comparison with other religions or ideologies, is unsupported and widely contested. The phrase is a common Islamic expression used in various instances, most regularly in prayer, and always as an expression of faith., While it has indeed been employed by “jihadists” during acts of violence, those instances are certainly not representative of the phrase’s usage among all, or even the majority of Muslims. A future blog post devoted entirely to both the misrepresentation of this phrase in certain circles, as well as Mr. Spencer’s particular views is needed.
The video referenced by Breitbart does in fact appear to show multiple men celebrating and repeating “Allahu Akbar” while one man holds the flag of the Free Syrian Army. Fireworks are also audible in the video. However, there is no indication beyond the Breitbart translation of the German twitter caption that the crowd is celebrating the Syrian cease-fire, but I am not overly concerned with this point. Of note, it is completely unclear whether this crowd is part of the “1,000-man mob” cited earlier, or part of an unrelated group. I have found no information connecting the two. Importantly however, by Breitbart’s own admission, these men are not chanting in celebration of the church fire.
The next claim, that the Free Syrian Army are “al-Qaeda and Islamic State collaborators,” is somewhat controversial. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose “collection of smaller opposition groups which were brought together at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in July 2011,” is itself difficult to define: at one point it was the major fighting force against the Assad Government in Syria, however due to various internal and external variables, the force is now dwindling., Breitbart’s claims are based on an 2014 article, also by Breitbart, titled, “Daily Jihad: Obama’s ‘vetted’ Free Syrian Army joining forces with Islamic State terrorist group.” While I don’t have the time to simultaneously fact-check this article, I will present some counter examples, such as a December 2016 article titled, “Free Syrian Army clashing with ISIS in East Qalamoun,” suggesting a more nuanced reality. With reservations on rejecting Breitbart’s claim outright, I will wonder if any misinformation, which may be relayed here, is the result of any trouble in defining the group.
Breitbart defended their article in a separate post, published January 8, 2017, and refused to retract any of the information presented in the January 3rd article, save for the whole “Germany’s oldest church” part. Breitbart rails against the “establishment media” for their “dishonest attack,” stating, “The headlines […] fail to reflect that reporting from some of the very same outlets now blasting Breitbart News confirmed almost every substantive fact about the Breitbart London report on the issue: there were 1,000, mostly male, mostly non-native German people gathered in the Leeds Square; there were repeated chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’; the ‘Free Syrian Army’ flag was flown; and there was a fire at the St. Reinold’s Church caused by the fireworks.” The article goes on to fact check each of these point individually.
And here I will circle back to my original point, while perhaps each of these sub-claims are true, Breitbart’s grievous error in reporting lies in its presentation of these “facts.” By connecting three separately reported events, without any justification for the existence of a relationship, Breitbart created a new story which was not fact-based. By presenting this mash-up in the headlines, the news site undoubtedly received considerable web traffic, but also misinformed readers who would only read the headline (and maybe the first sentence) without reading the entire article. Furthermore, by presenting this analysis first, before the “facts,” Breitbart conditions the reader to read more into the evidence than what is really there.
The consequences for these errors are significant. This idea sows fear into Breitbart’s loyal readers, Christians and others who already perceive that they are in the midst of a “war with Islam.” This shocking claim is undoubtedly terrifying, but in this instance it not these alleged Muslim hooligans, who are responsible for spreading terror, it is Breitbart, for planting unnecessary fear and defending irresponsible journalism.
 Breitbart News, http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/01/03/dortmund-mob-attack-police-church-alight/.  Translated from a German-language paper, Ruhr Nachrichten, and reported by the Straits Times, http://www.straitstimes.com/world/europe/fake-news-warning-in-germany-after-muslim-mob-story.  “German police quash Breitbart story of mob setting fire to Dortmund church,’ The Gaurdian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/07/german-police-quash-breitbart-story-of-mob-setting-fire-to-dortmund-church.  “German police ‘shook heads in disbelief’ at Breitbart News reporting of New Year’s Eve events in Dortmund,” The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/breitbart-news-dortmund-police-new-years-eve-fake-news-germany-angela-merkel-syrians-refugee-crisis-a7514786.html.  “‘Allahu akbar’-chanting mob sets alight Germany’s oldest church? Shocking sotry, if it were true,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/allahu-akbar-chanting-mob-sets-alight-germanys-oldest-church-shocking-story-if-it-were-true/2017/01/06/30470f58-d36a-11e6-9651-54a0154cf5b3_story.html?utm_term=.fc6e25e8ca83.  As reported by the Straits Times, http://www.straitstimes.com/world/europe/fake-news-warning-in-germany-after-muslim-mob-story.  “How to Destroy the Business Model of Breitbart and Fake News,” the New York Times, January 7, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opinion/sunday/how-to-destroy-the-business-model-of-breitbart-and-fake-news.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0.  Emphasis added.  http://www.ruhrnachrichten.de/staedte/dortmund/44137-Dortmund~/Silvester-Boellerverbote-und-Platzverweise-Die-Lage-in-Dortmund;art930,3185532.  “Fireworks Safety: Start the New Year off safely,” Kaiserslautern American, http://www.kaiserslauternamerican.com/fireworks-safety-start-the-new-year-off-safely/.  “‘Allahu akbar’-chanting mob sets alight Germany’s oldest church? Shocking sotry, if it were true,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/allahu-akbar-chanting-mob-sets-alight-germanys-oldest-church-shocking-story-if-it-were-true/2017/01/06/30470f58-d36a-11e6-9651-54a0154cf5b3_story.html?utm_term=.fc6e25e8ca83.  “Fake ‘fake news’: Media sow division with dishonest attack on Breitbart’s ‘Allahu Akbar’ Church fire story,” Breitbart News, January 8, 2017, http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/01/08/fake-news-fake-news-media-sow-division-with-dishonest-attack-on-breitbarts-allahu-akbar-church-fire-story/.  http://www.breitbart.com/immigration/2015/12/25/allahu-akbar-means-almost-everything-except-establishment-media-says/.  http://www.breitbart.com/author/robert-spencer/.  https://www.jihadwatch.org/.  https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/robert-spencer.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ameerah-altaweel/the-true-meaning-of-allahu-akbar_b_9244372.html.  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/09/god_is_still_great.html.  https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/allahu-akbar  Jaun Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam, 2009.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/11/what-does-allahu-akbar-mean/.  Via twitter, pic.twitter.com/Yxom6nY5QC.  http://www.ibtimes.com/what-free-syrian-army-russia-targets-cia-trained-rebels-opposed-assad-regime-2122967.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24403003.  http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2014/09/09/daily-jihad-obama-s-vetted-free-syrian-army-joining-forces-with-islamic-state-terror-group/.  https://southfront.org/free-syrian-army-clashing-with-isis-in-east-qalamoun/.  “Fake ‘fake news’: Media sow division with dishonest attack on Breitbart’s ‘Allahu Akbar’ Church fire story,” Breitbart News, January 8, 2017, http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/01/08/fake-news-fake-news-media-sow-division-with-dishonest-attack-on-breitbarts-allahu-akbar-church-fire-story/.