News Brief

Islamophobic fake news explodes after Notre Dame

The fire started high in Notre Dame’s roof at 6:43pm Paris time. The blaze quickly ripped through the cathedral’s roof, toppling its spire. And almost as quickly, conspiracies, whispers and lies began spreading across the internet, filled with Islamophobic hate.

French prosecutors who are investigating the fire said they don’t believe the blaze was a result of arson or terrorism. But that didn’t deter those who were determined to link the blaze to France’s Muslim community.

Anonymous social media users and prominent right-wing voices have planted seeds of doubt to peddle the theory that Muslims were behind the fire.

A 2016 article published in London’s Telegraph newspaper with the headline “Gas tanks and Arabic documents found in unmarked an car by Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral spark terror fears” got renewed traction on Twitter with tens of thousands of retweets.

The use of old news stories taken out of context is a tried-and-tested disinformation technique. And the Telegraph – unlike many other major newspapers – has no system in place to denote that an article is from their archive.

Meanwhile, Canadian media personality Ezra Levant – one of the first to retweet the Telegraph article as possible evidence – fueled the flames of suspicion. “Who is this?” he tweeted, linking to a video of one of the bell towers, where a figure in a hi-vis jacket and white helmet can be seen walking past the windows. “A fireman? A construction worker? Or someone else?” – his replies filled with people declaring the video proof of Islamic involvement.

Meanwhile, an anonymous YouTube user published a video of the cathedral on fire, to the soundtrack audio of a man screaming “Allahu Akbar.” The original video got 40,000 views before it was taken down, but has since has been republished by several other users, and its views are climbing back up into the thousands. The soundtrack was slapped onto the video and was sourced from an old Youtube phone video of a bombing in the Middle East, called “Allahu Akbar video effect”.

Like the Christchurch shootings last month, YouTube’s review process was challenged by the eruption of Islamophobic content. But this time, YouTube’s algorithm apparently helped is audiences to make a connection between the fire and radical Islam.

For viewers watching livestream videos of the fire, YouTube suggested “knowledge panels”, that included Encyclopedia Britannica content explaining the 9/11 attacks. The “knowledge panel” algorithm had been created in as part of YouTube’s campaign to combat disinformation. But in this instance, it did nothing but fan the flames.

The Kremlin-controlled news outlet RT also played a role in the peddling of online conspiracy surrounding the fire. It tweeted “#NotreDame fire follows months of arson, vandalism and desecration of French Catholic Churches…” before redacting the post later.

Scottish Member of Parliament Stewart McDonald condemned the statement, tweeting “Many far-right, anti-Muslim & outright weird accounts/outlets have been pushing conspiracy theories about the Notre Dame fire and of course RT wasn’t to be left behind & has joined in the peddling.”

RT later removed the tweet after publishing a Fact Check confirming French officials’ announcement that the fire was thought to be an accident.