Hoax Map counters absurd rumours about refugees in Germany

A German website called Hoax Map is debunking false rumours about refugees throughout Germany and Austria, ranging from the absurd to the disturbing.

False accusations include refugees eating a stolen horse and throwing a toilet out a window

Hoax Map, a German website, is debunking false rumours about refugees throughout Germany and Austria. As of writing, they have 205 reports. (Hoax Map/Google Maps)

A German website called Hoax Map is debunking false rumours about refugees throughout Germany and Austria, many of which range from the absurd to the disturbing.

Among the rumours debunked are accusations that a Muslim threw a toilet out of a window because an unbeliever sat on it, and that refugees have been eating all the vanishing swans from a German lake.

The accusations do get much darker, however, including dozens of false claims of sexual assault.

Germany took in 1.1 million registered asylum seekers in 2015, and with their arrival came lots of rumour-mongering on social media.

Hoax Map takes in these stories and counters them with official reports from reputable news outlets, the police or local government sources.

Where there's an allegation, there's a corresponding dot on the map to represent it.

Karolin Schwarz, 30, began the project with her friend Lutz Helm, 35, in Leipzig, Germany. They built the website because they were tired of seeing these allegations spread online – especially since many were being repeated despite the fact that they'd been clarified elsewhere.

The team wanted a resource that people could use to respond to errant claims and to collect information on stories that had already been disproved.

"I wanted to find some kind of way to gather all of this information, and what is happening. Maybe make a place that you can find if there's some truth to these stories or not," Schwarz told CBC News.

Some of the rumours derived from partially true stories taken out of context, though the website points out that many of them are outright lies.

Children of asylum seekers play basketball at the Patrick-Henry Village refugee center, a former U.S. military facility in Heidelberg in Sept. 2015, not too far away from the rumour of a horse being grilled and eaten. (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

One of the common themes seen on the map are stories of asylum seekers getting paid exorbitant amounts of money by the government to cover expenses.

For instance, one 2015 story claimed that an African refugee got hair extensions for religious reasons in the city of Prien am Chiemsee, and then charged the local government €720.

The story is fake, but the Rheinischer Merkur paper, which originally debunked it, notes that it remains a popular one to tell online.

"I don't know anywhere that charges that much for hair extensions," Schwarz said, laughing.

There's also a surprising number of stories about newcomers poaching or killing animals, including one strange rumour from Oct. 2015 about refugees who stole, ate and grilled a whole horse. 

"This story is nonsense!" Karlheinz Rehm, a city councilor in Heidelberg and a horse farmer, told the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung paper. The outlet also reported that police were investigating a woman for defamation and filing a false police report. 

With the site only launching on Feb. 9, it's still early days for the map. That said, it's already amassed 205 entries.

Schwarz is a business consultant, while Helm is a developer. They add rumours submitted to them via Twitter and email to the map in their spare time.

On Feb. 10, the duo had about 40 stories to add, though Schwarz noted that they've seen more than a hundred emails come through so far.

Schwarz said that it's too early to draw any real conclustions from the map. The false stories appear to come from all over, though she's found that they do seem to focus around the states of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.

Bavaria is often the entry way for asylum seekers coming in through the Balkans, according to Reuters.

North Rhine-Westphalia, by far, has the  highest number of debunked rumours, which Schwarz attributes to the mass sexual assaults and muggings during the New Year's celebrations in Cologne, the state's largest city.

Between rumours tagged rape and sexual violence, these false rumours are at least 44 of the 205 collected (Hoax Map)

More than 497 women reported a sexual assault that day, out of more than 830 criminal complaints. Police have arrested an Algerian man, who is an asylum seeker, in relation to the charges.

These incidents have prompted further allegations, many of which have been proven false.

One of these accusations attracted notoriety online after a 13-year-old girl in Berlin claimed she was raped by a refugee. The girl later admitted to fabricating the story, according to the Guardian. Regardless, the lie provoked protests in both Germany and Russia. 

At this time, Hoax Map has found at least 44 cases where migrants were falsely accused of sexual assault, including sexual violence and rape.

Demonstrators protest against racism and sexism in the wake of the sexual assaults on New Year's Eve, outside the cathedral in Cologne, Germany on Jan. 9. Poster at right reads: No violence against women. (Oliver Berg/dpa via AP Photo)

A few more errant cases wrongly claim asylum seekers were involved in attempted murders, attempted sexual assault and vehicular manslaughter.

When it comes to cases like these, Schwarz said she hopes people continue to send in debunked rumours. 

"People are really supportive about it," she said to CBC News. "We're looking through everything and hoping we can keep on with this."