What the Internet Does to Bad Ideas
Our Body Cultural is built upon our stories of ourselves, but that process is crumbling
This is a story: A report came out in the German newspaper Bild in 2016 that seemed to validate the feelings of those who’d claimed that taking in refugees brought rape and crime to the country. The paper reported that a “sex mob” of fifty or more “Arab” men ran rampant in Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve, sexually assaulting dozens of women and causing havoc.
The story is entirely false. But it went viral. As Newsweek’s Rossalyn Warren wrote, the article, which went global when it was aggregated by the far-right American news site Breitbart, did so because it “played on some of Germany’s worst fears.” A police investigation soon found social media posts indicating that the original source of the story — a woman quoted by Bild only by her first name, Irina — wasn’t even in Frankfurt on the night in question.
Like a tiger’s stripes, stories have evolved to use the appearance of facts as a camouflage — and it has never been more difficult to tell one from the other.
The Frankfurt rape mob story and others like it, such as this hoax about refugees allegedly setting fire to a church in Dortmund, continue to spread. In January 2018, Trump tweeted: “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!”
In fact, crime in Germany is down 10 percent, and is at its lowest level since 1992. Germany has taken far more than its fair share of refugees: recent data from Eurostat shows that the country is responsible for 60 percent of all accepted asylum applications in the European Union; in 2016 it took in far more refugees (433,905) than the United States, which only granted 84,989 asylum petitions in the same year. In fact, studies tend to show that immigrant communities tend to have lower crime rates overall than non-immigrant communities.
“Fact” is the name we give to the type of story that is rooted in empirical truth. But it has never been easier for a story to pretend to have the attributes of…