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The devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral led to an outpouring of anguish and sympathy. It also prompted conspiracy theorists, anti-Muslim campaigners, and far-right figures to begin spreading baseless claims and conspiratorial theories that Muslims were to blame.
At no point have French authorities said the fire was deliberately set, and as of now investigators say all signs point to it being a tragic accident. But by the time official information began to spread, the seeds of an anti-Muslim narrative had been planted using false claims and innuendo. It quickly cascaded from fringe message boards and social media to far-right websites and cable news.
Here’s a timeline of how a coordinated online campaign to link Muslims to the Notre Dame fire unfolded.
(Note: Authorities have not released any definitive information about the cause of the fire, which means we still don’t know for sure what was responsible. This story shows how baseless and false claims sought to fill that information vacuum.)
The first hours (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET)
Fake Twitter accounts pretending to be CNN and Fox News were the first to start spreading disinformation about the fire. Each account was created this month and claimed to be a parody of the real organization. It took Twitter two hours to remove the fake CNN account, and even longer to remove the Fox News imposter.
The fake CNN account planted the idea that the fire was an act of terrorism. Meanwhile, a post from the fake Fox News account presented a fabricated tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar saying “They reap what they sow” in reference to Notre Dame.
Omar never said those words, but people continued sharing the fake tweet long after the account was suspended.
Both fake accounts helped lay the groundwork for the conspiracies to follow.
A little after noon, a Tennessee politician and media commentator named Christopher Hale posted a tweet saying that a friend of his had heard from staff at the cathedral that the fire was intentional. He told BuzzFeed News he deleted the tweet roughly 10 minutes later after he realized it was incorrect.
“For the record, I completely believe [the fire] was an accident. The Jesuit who texted me — my friend — believes it was an accident. Conspiracy theorists who are going to run with this have zero evidence,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Even though it was only online for a short period, Hale’s tweet was seen by conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars. He used the incorrect, deleted tweet as the sole basis for a story headlined “Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Fire, Worker Claims It Was ‘Deliberately’ Started.”
“I regret that I became an unintended tool of the worst parts of the internet,” Hale said. “I think what’s remarkable about it is how quickly an innate desire to blame the clear accident in Paris on the Muslim community took a life of its own from a tweet that was up for 10 minutes.”
Infowars posted its story just after 2 p.m. and has not issued any corrections, clarifications, or updates since. This article helped feed the idea that something was being covered up, and perhaps the fire was not an accident.
Two more key anti-Muslim narratives also began during this time period.
At about 1 p.m., an account tweeted a video of Notre Dame burning with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (an Arabic phrase that roughly translates to "God is great") edited over the video. It was an obvious fake, as the audio was taken from a recording that appears as a top Google search result when looking for audio of that phrase.
The video received a few dozen retweets and was later removed by Twitter. But it didn’t take long for copycats to start popping up throughout the day. The “Allahu Akbar” video hoax was born, and with it came a narrative about Muslims being happy about the fire.
Just an hour after the first fake "Allahu Akbar" video, another was posted by a Twitter account called “MAGAphobia.” Instead of putting fake shouts in a real video, the poster just said that’s what the shouts were. In fact, people in the video were yelling "allais, en avant," which in French means "go on, move along."
Also at roughly 1 p.m., the far-right anti-Muslim website Jihad Watch posted a story about a Muslim woman being sentenced for a 2016 incident in which she “plotted to blow up car packed with gas canisters near Notre Dame cathedral.” The incident was real, but old and unconnected. The director of the website later tweeted that the story was scheduled to run that morning, meaning the timing was accidental.
However, many people on social media misread the story as new and connected to the fire. (The post was later updated to say at the top: “This is not a post about the fire at Notre Dame.”)
Between 2 and 3 p.m. ET (when shit hit the fan)
This is when anti-Muslim conspiracies and hateful posts began picking up steam on mainstream social networks and fringe message boards.
4chan, an online messaging board known as the internet’s cesspool, was filled with posts targeting Muslims, and some users also called for misinformation to be spread.
Three key narratives took hold and spread during this period: Suggestions that ISIS was responsible, the connection of this fire to previous church desecrations in France, and a continued attempt to paint Muslims as celebrating the destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
The completely unsupported ISIS connection seems to have started with PartisanGirl, a far-right Twitter account that previously spread disinformation about the conflict in Syria, among other topics. She tweeted an incomprehensible statement about ISIS destroying artifacts, and also offered a conspiracy that French President Emmanuel Macron was the one who set fire to Notre Dame to make the Yellow Vests movement — a populist political campaign for economic justice that has been fueling protests — look bad. The Gateway Pundit later published a story trying to link the Bataclan attacks by ISIS in Paris in 2015 and the Notre Dame fire.
At roughly the same time, recent stories about suspicious fires in French churches began spreading rapidly by people who often help push anti-Muslim stories or conspiracy theories. The articles being shared were from reliable sources, and it’s understandable to be concerned that the Notre Dame fire may have been connected to the previous incidents.
It’s also worth noting, however, that far-right personalities Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, Pamela Geller, Paul Rondeau, and many others all posted these stories within roughly an hour of one another, and that some of these same people spread content that tried to point the finger at Muslims, or suggest that Muslims were pleased by the fire. The stories about other church fires were also shared by the Russian propaganda outlet RT and, a day later, by the German far-right party AfD.
Around the same time, Fox News anchors had to step in as their live guests began baselessly questioning the cause of the fire, the Daily Beast reported.
“It’s like a 9/11, a French 9/11,” one of the guests said. “Of course, you will hear the story of the politically— the political correctness, which will tell you it’s probably an accident.”
By then, there was still no evidence of any foul play in the fire, and people were in shock as the fire was getting worse.
Soon, a video of Facebook reactions posted by a French far-right personality brought forward a new anti-Muslim narrative. The video showed people with Arabic-sounding names reacting to the Notre Dame fire with smiley emojis, implying celebration. It was boosted by Infowars writer Paul Joseph Watson to his 945,000 Twitter followers and by far-right personality Katie Hopkins to her 927,000 followers.
This isn’t the first time far-right personalities pointed to Facebook emojis to try to stroke anger. The same thing happened in 2017 during the London bridge attack.
The laughing-face emojis were clearly in the minority of reactions to the fire video, and it's impossible to know why people chose a specific emoji, or for that matter, the religion of people reacting to a Facebook video. It’s also difficult to verify the authenticity of the accounts. The bottom line is that Facebook emojis on a video don’t tell us anything about a group of people. But it makes for good content, apparently.
While that video spread, hundreds of Twitter accounts began sharing a link to a 2016 story about an unrelated terror plot, the same one Jihad Watch had posted about roughly an hour earlier. The first tweet linking to the story was posted just after 2 p.m., but soon more than 600 other accounts tweeted the same story, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis using data gathered from the Twitter API.
All the tweets repeated the headline “Gas tanks and Arabic documents found in unmarked car by Paris' Notre Dame cathedral spark terror fears” and linked to the 2016 story from the Daily Telegraph. The newspaper later posted a note at the top of its story to reinforce that it was from 2016, but the link continued to be shared. It was also spread by far-right personality Faith Goldy, who was recently banned from Facebook for her white nationalist content and hate speech.
Finally, this same one-hour time period saw the first video of a worker walking on the outside of the cathedral in a tweet written in Spanish. In the coming hours, people would use the grainy video to make false claims about the fire, including that the person shown was an "Imam" or a Yellow Vest protester setting the fire. Both are false.
Libération, a national French newspaper, has sifted through other footage of the fire to find the origin of the video. It was filmed after first responders to the fire had entered Notre Dame. Moments later, firefighters can be seen in the original footage. But the false claims and innuendo helped this video travel across social media and feed conspiratorial narratives.
3 p.m. onward
With the narratives largely set, the remaining hours of the day, and the day after, were dedicated to further spreading these claims and accusations.
Katie Hopkins claimed the destruction of the cathedral was a symbol of the West burning, and Pamela Geller pushed the narrative of Muslims celebrating. One of her posts with that message received over 32,000 shares and more than 10,000 reactions on Facebook, according to the Oxford Internet Institute Junk news Aggregator.
Also on Facebook, Rush Limbaugh likened the church's destruction to the 9/11 attacks and received over 10,000 shares and 16,000 reactions.
That same night on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, commentator Mark Steyn continuously brought up terror attacks committed by Muslims, despite a lack of any indication from French officials that the Notre Dame fire was set deliberately.
Lam Thuy Vo contributed reporting to this story.
Ever wonder why pervasive conspiracy theories tend to follow major breaking news events? Us, too. Introducing TRACKBACK, a new series from BuzzFeed News reporters Jane Lytvynenko and Craig Silverman exploring the rise of conspiracy content, online hoaxes, and social media scams. When a big story breaks, TRACKBACK will be there with the facts so you’ll know exactly what the truth is.