This unconscious information substitution, he cautioned, doesn’t make the stories “hoaxes,” as the name Hoaxmap suggests. “Hoax implies that someone is deliberately spreading false information in order to trick someone for some kind of personal benefit,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s what’s going on.” It’s more likely, he said, that the rumors have their basis in understandable fears. Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan of the Migration Policy Institute echoed the point. “Immigration,” she said, can act as “a proxy for existing insecurities.”
Existing insecurities can be maddeningly difficult to pin down. Justin Berg, who has researched attitudes toward immigration in the United States, noted via email that numerous forms of social priming can contribute to fear of refugees, in addition to straightforward environmental factors like the underlying crime rate and the actual number of new arrivals in any given place. The regions the Hoaxmap reports as sporting the really big numbers of crime rumors are not necessarily the regions with the highest crime rates, nor are they even the regions with the largest numbers of refugees. “[V]arious forms of threat, political ideology, political party, racism, type of immigrant contact, personal education, and media typically play larger roles,” Berg said, “especially when the influx of immigration is relatively quick like it has been in Europe recently.”
In the case of rape rumors specifically, research from the past few decades shows that the type of perceived threat may matter a great deal. “In the United States, among younger women ... rape is feared more than any other crime, including homicide,” Mark Warr, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies patterns in both crime and fear of crime, pointed out via email. Because of that, “even a small increase in apparent risk (like a locally reported rape or rapes) can generate substantial and widespread fear.” Thus the sexual assaults in Cologne might easily have an outsized impact in the rumor world as compared to other reported crimes.
Additionally, the early demographics of refugees arriving in Germany may have had some effect. “By the end of 2015 the arrivals were almost a quarter children, which was extraordinary,” said Banulescu-Bogdan. But earlier, “the flows were predominantly male and came from majority-Muslim countries,” she said, and “this idea that young Muslim men wouldn’t have respect for women became pervasive.” Anglophone Twitter may have mocked the Bavarian Radio’s cartoon guide for refugees, which featured a large orange “X” over a picture of a man groping a woman, but the drawing probably reflected genuine German concerns at the time.
Finally, there’s another possible contributor to the prevalence of rumors about refugees and crime, especially sexual assault: the media’s own apparent reluctance to offer reliable reports of refugee crime. Although police reportedly received 170 complaints regarding women being groped and robbed near the train station in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, it took until January 5 for the story to make national and international headlines, and even longer for arrests to be made. The perceived foot-dragging and bias, according to Banulescu-Bogdan, “really exacerbated people’s fears. They thought ‘everybody’s trying to tell us that we have no reason to be fearful, that our anxieties are illegitimate in some way and look what happened. What else are they covering up?’”