Hoaxmap: “A database to look up false rumours and a tool for discussion”

Interview by Ana Ribeiro and Ola Aljari
The predicament of refugees coming into Europe over the past year has worsened amid the increasing spread of fear and lies about them in the receiving countries’ public sphere. The movement to counter this situation has seen some progress in recent months, however.

A notable example has been the now internationally-known Hoaxmap. Created by an everyday citizen based in Leipzig, it is an online tool that shows where nasty rumours about refugees are sprouting up in German-speaking EU countries, accompanied by the media reports debunking them. The map does not only tell a story of fear-mongering: It also shows a heartening counter-trend of support for refugees from the media outlets, authorities, businesses, and others rectifying the false reports. In this interview, the ECPMF gets to know the two Leipzig-based professionals who are making the Hoaxmap possible, and some of their observations so far.

ECPMF: Who is the team behind the Hoaxmap project?

Lutz Helm: Karolin Schwarz (30) is a consultant, Lutz Helm (35) is a software developer. We both live in Leipzig. At the moment, only the two of us are working on the map. Karolin Schwarz had the initial idea and prepared the first technical steps.

How do your work on the Hoaxmap?

Ever since, we have been sharing the complete work. We search for cases with internet search engines and news alerts, and we check the hints we get via Twitter or email. Once we have a possible case for the map, we read through relating articles and texts and determine where and when the story had been spread before we finally place it on the map. We collected 177 cases before we went online with the map. Most of the cases since then have been contributed by users via Twitter or e-mail.

Did any events happening around you in Leipzig prompt you to create the Hoaxmap?

Karolin had been voluntarily working in a refugee shelter since last summer and was often confronted with rumours or misinformation about this shelter, but she knew about the real situation. But aside from that, the numerous rumours which have been spread especially since last summer are enough reason to look for tools to counter them. There has not been an especially notable case in Leipzig.

Through your research and work on the Hoaxmap, have you been able to identify reasons behind telling and spreading such foul stories?

We have not yet analyzed the spreading of the rumours and false information that we have collected. However, some factors can already be identified. First, there are many people who do not trust traditional newspapers or public broadcasting anymore and who get their information primarily from social media and from recently established right-wing news portals.

A second factor that we have identified are right wing politicians, for example from the AfD or the NPD, or speakers of anti-refugee manifestations who either outright lie or who are very willing to share any information that serves their matter, regardless of its actual validity.

Another factor is that mainstream media often spreads information about supposed crimes of migrants, for example after the police releases a press statement which later turns out to be based on a false testimony. The police and most of the media then correct their earlier statements but it is questionable whether these refutations get the same attention as the original stories.

How do you think the events that happened on New Year's Eve in Cologne affected the spread of these rumors about refugees or asylum-seekers? Did the aftermath of the incidents help drive you to launch the Hoaxmap?

The need and the wish to do something about rumours about refugees had been present before New Year's Eve, there just had not been a suitable idea. Many of the events we have collected are from the last year. But although we don't have any numbers yet, we have the feeling that the number of rumours has been rising since the events in Cologne. And we think that the enormous interest that the media has had in our project might be related to the rumours that have become more numerous after Cologne.

Have you also gotten feedback from people in other parts of Europe or the world?

There have been some reports in international media, for example the BBC, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera English, Forbes and many others. We also had some international reactions on Twitter by people who asked if we plan an international version of Hoaxmap or if we intend to translate the map at least into English. Some people told us that they would like to start similar projects for their countries. The map also drew the attention of the International Fact-Checking Group of the Florida-based Poynter Institute.

Have any government or law enforcement officials reached out to you so far regarding the Hoaxmap?

There has been a tweet from German Minister of Justice Heiko Maas welcoming our project, and we've been recommended by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees on Twitter and Facebook, but aside from that there was nothing notable.

Via the Hoaxmap, have you noticed a difference in the stories being reported from one region of Germany to another? From the information you've collected so far, what are the regions with the highest proportion of rumours hostile to refugees and the ones with the lowest?

We do notice regional differences on the map but we are very wary to draw any conclusions from that. Most entries on our map are from North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria, which also happen to be the two German states with the largest population. We have very few cases in Switzerland, which might be related to the fact that the number of refugees isn't as high in Switzerland as it is in Germany or Austria. Some rumours only occur in certain regions – for example, the one that the aid agency Caritas has paid expensive mobile phones for refugees has only been spread in Austria and in Switzerland, there is no case in Germany yet.

Besides that, it is too early to draw any conclusions because we do not know the causes for these differences. For example, we have had a lot of rumours about social benefits for refugees in Bavaria. But besides the possibility that these rumours are actually more common in Bavaria, there is also the possibility that Bavarian media is more eager to investigate the cases.

If I was a refugee who wanted to use the map beneficially, what tips would you give me? And how can I contribute to the map?

We don't see any special use for refugees. We think that refugees can use the map like everybody else – as a database to look up false rumours and a tool for discussion. This might be difficult at the moment for people who do not speak German. Contributions are very welcome, but we can't investigate cases on our own, so if people have information that a reported rumour might be false, we can only refer them to professional journalists or to groups who investigate such rumours. We collect hints for refuted false reports via Twitter and via e-mail

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