Reports of fake or nonexistent terror attacks risk unnecessary panic and promote an outsized response to a very real problem.
Within the last month alone, a trend has emerged in which officials or news agencies reference terror attacks that indisputably have no basis in reality. These false reports promote an atmosphere of terror in and of themselves, leading to anger, xenophobia, and misinformation – all of which make a terrible foundation on which to build policy.
First, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway referred to a “Bowling Green massacre” earlier this month in an interview, as part of her defense of Donald Trump’s immigration ban against refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations. The reality of the situation was far from a massacre; two men had been arrested on terrorism related charges in 2011, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The two Iraqi men were later convicted of trying to move weapons and money out of the US to Al Qaeda in Iraq. According to the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division at the time of the conviction, there were no attacks plotted in the US by the two Iraqis. As a response, the Obama administration re-vetted 58,000 refugees already in the US, and made procedural changes to the way refugees were admitted to the country.
Soon after, one poll found that 51 percent of Trump supporters believed the “Bowling Green Massacre” was evidence of the need for Trump’s immigration policies, although the poll was later criticized for how it posed the questions.
More recently, the German daily tabloid Bild apologized for a February 6th story that misreported a mass assault incident in Frankfurt, in which a “mob” of Arab men were reported to have sexually assaulted women in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. The report had many elements of a New Year’s Eve attack the previous year, in which hundreds of women were assaulted in the city of Cologne, by men described as having “a North African or Arabic” appearance.
The recent Frankfurt story, however, turned out to be entirely fabricated. Police said that the allegations of assault were “completely baseless”, finding that one of the alleged victims had not even been in Frankfurt at the time.
“Interviews with alleged witnesses, guests and employees led to major doubts with the version of events that had been presented,” according to German police speaking to Frankfurter Rundschau.
Bild retracted and apologized for the story, but not before it was spread by a range of right-wing news outlets and on social media.
“You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”
While the comments did not specifically claim there had been a terror attack, the context of national security, after referring to Germany’s problems with migrants, was considered by many in both the US and Sweden to suggest a major terrorist incident. Nothing of that nature had happened either Friday or Saturday in Sweden, and Swedish officials reacted with a mixture of anger and confusion.
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, said on Twitter “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound.”
On Sunday, Trump said his statement referred to a news story about rising crime in Sweden related to an influx of immigrants. Notably, official reports show that crime in Sweden has fallen since 2005.
In any case, the statement was vague at best and misleading at worst.
Together, the three incidents amount to a deluge of misinformation, all of which promoted fear and xenophobia. In the era of social media, retractions, apologies, and explanations do little to mitigate the damage that happens when these stories are spread.