N’dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY Published 8:12 p.m. ET April 16, 2019 | Updated 12:42 p.m. ET April 17, 2019
As the world watched the beloved Notre Dame Cathedral go up in flames Monday, conspiracy theories about how the fire started spread online.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but officials say it probably began as an accident during restoration work. Officials have ruled out arson as well as possible terror-related motives, but that didn’t stop misinformation and hoaxes from circulating on social media.
InfoWars, the far-right conspiracy website run by Alex Jones, published a story based on a since-deleted tweet from Christopher J. Hale claiming the fire was “deliberately” set. Hale, who describes himself as a contributor to TIME & Fox News, clarified that his initial tweet was an “unsubstantiated rumor.”
Infowars writer Paul Joseph Watson included a video he tweeted that appears to show people with Arabic-sounding names reacting with “smiley faces” to a Facebook post about the fire.
While Watson presented this as evidence of those people “celebrating” the fire, Buzzfeed News pointed out “it’s impossible to know why people chose a specific emoji, or for that matter the religion of people reacting to a Facebook video.”
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As the cathedral burned, a guest on Fox News seemed to suggest the blaze was set intentionally calling it “a French 9/11.” Philippe Karsenty – a French media analyst who, according to the Daily Beast, was once convicted of defamation – warned host Shepard Smith of “the story of the politically correct, the political correctness which will tell you it’s probably an accident.”
Smith quickly shut down the interview, saying “the man on the phone with us has absolutely no information of any kind about the origin of this fire and neither do I.”
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Dozens of posts on a conspiracy theory subreddit with nearly 850,000 members perpetuated the idea that the fire was started intentionally, blaming it on a variety of minority groups with little to no evidence.
Many shared a 2016 Telegraph article titled “Gas tanks and Arabic documents found in unmarked car by Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral spark terror fears,” suggesting the incident is connected to the fire. The article has since been updated to confirm the story is not about the recent blaze.
Misinformation has also spread from accounts claiming to be legitimate news sources. CNN reported that a fake Twitter account created in April to look like one operated by the network falsely claimed the fire was caused by terrorism.
The account was taken down within hours after CNN publicly criticized Twitter over it.
A Twitter spokesperson told the Washington Post that the company is reviewing reports of disinformation related to the blaze.
“The team is reviewing reports and if they are in violation suspending them per the Twitter Rules,” the spokesperson told the Post. “Our focus continues to be detecting and removing coordinated attempts to manipulate the conversation at speed and scale.”
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