A new German website created to fact-check and debunk incorrect media information about alleged crimes committed by new refugees in Europe has received a huge response.
The website Hoaxmap.org had 100,000 visitors in one day, less than a week after its launch in early February, 2016. More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. Some 80,000 refugees arrived in Europe in the first six weeks of 2016 alone.
Website founders Karolin Schwarz, 30, and Lutz Helm, 35, created the website in response to the rumours which circulated after the Cologne New Year's eve attacks, fuelling fear and hostility towards new asylum seekers in the country.
“We were not expecting this kind of response”, Lutz said.
“We thought it would just be a small group who would be interested in this website, people who would use it for anti-racism arguments. The reactions have been overwhelming.”
When they launched the platform there were 170 cases pinpointed on the map. Now this number has increased to 246 and continues to grow. The pair is trawling through new tips about false rumours they receive through social media. “It is enough [work] for a full time job”, said Lutz.
Some of the rumours the website debunks Lutz describes as "absurd".
“In Bielefeld there was a rumour of a refugee who broke a toilet from the wall and threw it out of the window in a refugee shelter, because a non-believer sat on the toilet before him”, he said.
Another rumour claims refugees killed and ate swans from a local lake.
But the most common topic of the rumours Lutz and Karolin are collecting is of sexual assault. Lutz sees a rising fear of sexual assault by refugees in his community and on social media, following the mass attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve.
Recent reports say only three out of 58 men arrested after the incident were recent refugees from Iraq and Syria.
“We think what happened has nothing to do with the origin of these people," Lutz says.
It is just the beginning of collecting data for the website and Lutz says they will share their data with anyone who wants to use it.
“You can’t have exact statistics about rumours as it is such a grey area, but we might be able to see patterns of incidents and see in which regions rumours spread the most,” he said.
Germany has had a huge influx of refugees from Syria since the start of the refugee crisis in Europe. While Chancellor Angela Merkel was initially praised for her open-door policy, she now faces heavy criticism from the opposition as well as within her own party.
Lutz and Karolin's initiative is a reaction to media organisations, which they say spread unsubstantiated accusations.
This week, Polish magazine wSieci controversially published a photo of a woman dressed in the European flag, being attacked by faceless dark-skinned men.
After the sexual assault of women in Cologne, German magazine Focus was also heavily critisised for using "racist" imagery on their cover of a white woman with black hand prints on her naked body.
The newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung subsequently apologised for publishing a illustration of a black arm reaching up between white legs.
The Tweet below was posted on the day the website launched. It says: 'Hello world! Hoaxmap collects rumours about refugees and the articles that refute them'.
With this initiative, Lutz and Karolin hope they can help people separate fact from fiction in a time when hysteria is leading the public debate.