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16 April 2019updated 21 Sep 2021 6:36am

Conspiracy theories about the Notre Dame fire are already beginning to spread

By Sarah Manavis

When the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris began in the late afternoon on 15 April, millions of people across the world began to pour out sympathy for Parisians, sadness at the loss of the historic landmark, and, inevitably, holiday photos snapped while visiting the iconic building. But among the sympathetic messages posted about Notre Dame cathedral came another type of post – fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories about what caused the fire. As with most major tragedies in the last decade, misinformation about Notre Dame began to spread almost immediately. Within a matter of hours, conspiracy theories were flourishing online. 

False claims surrounding the fire have found a home on sites like 4chan, Twitter, Reddit, and InfoWars. “MAN ARRESTED AFTER GAS TANKS FOUND NEAR CATHEDRAL, SUSPECT WAS ON FRENCH TERROR WATCH LIST”, “SUSPICIOUS LOOKING MAN SPOTTED ATOP NOTRE DAME CHAPEL AS ROOF IS A BLAZE”, and “Macron has probably set fire to Notre Dame to try and make the Yellow vests look bad” are typical of the messages that have been posted over the last 15 hours.

Notorious sites known for being sources of “fake news” – like Canadian website The Rebel – have begun crowdfunding trips to Paris to “investigate links” between the Notre Dame fire and potential “terrorist plots”. And while many of these stories are being pushed by anonymous users and accounts online, some have originated among verified Twitter users; journalists, ex-politicos, and social commentators.

Even though not all users commenting on the Notre Dame fire are sharing unverified claims, the seeds of doubt are being sown. “Does anybody find it suspicious that Notre Dame had been cleared of tourists the day before the fire?” one user posted on Reddit last night. “Makes no sense,” wrote a 4chan user. “The whole thing is starting to sink.”

Beyond misinformation, racist narratives and ironic posts about minority groups committing arson have spread across the internet. Ironic posts claiming “the Jews did it” are particularly popular online, with posts like this one on 4chan common – “Ladies and gentlemen, the jews did it. It’s so obvious. Absolute pleasure from a Christian church burning. Oh yes gimme some of those sheckels!”. Muslims are also being targeted in baseless claims from “right-wing trolls” across social media, with false claims that they were engaging with Facebook posts about the fire with “smiley face reacts” and that they were posting with “gleeful joy” that an iconic Christian building had been destroyed. Replying to the latter false story one user wrote “They will pay. In blood.”

Screenshots from 4chan

What we know about the Notre Dame fire at this point is limited. And as the blaze only abated roughly twelve hours ago, it will likely take days until we have a clearer picture. However, we can say unequivocally that any claims around arson, foul play, or racist plots are entirely baseless and unverified. But as long as the internet provides a climate for conspiracy theories to flourish, these false stories will continue to take hold.

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