FACT-CHECK: Breitbart, ‘Fake News’, a fire at a church in Germany, and a ‘1,000 man-mob’ chanting ‘Alluha Akbar’

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.”[1] 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”.[2]

Breitbart’s critics included Tehran’s AFP News, the Guardian,[3] the Independent,[4] POLITICO, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post,[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7]

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.

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