Video: A destructive fire tore through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15. (Antoine Goldet,Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
As a conflagration spread through the ancient timbers of Notre Dame Cathedral’s attic on Monday, a parallel fire was spreading on social media. This one was willfully set, a series of conspiracy theories neatly slotted into preexisting cultural biases. And soon enough, willing believers were aflame with hate.
The conspiracy theorizing began almost as soon as the blaze did, right when people saw the shocking, transfixing video of the cathedral's spire toppling. While French authorities began to assert almost immediately that the fire was apparently accidental, the brief gap between the startling images' generation and their explication was enough for far-right figures to exploit with their own sinister insinuations. Their prevailing view was nearly identical and, apparently, completely false: that the fire was deliberate and most probably set by Muslims.
Conservative gadflies on social media were among the first to leap to dark conclusions about the blaze, even as it raged: Matt Walsh, a conservative blogger who identifies himself as a "theocratic fascist" in his Twitter bio, wrote , "I don't understand how a fire of this magnitude could happen accidentally," accumulating nearly 9,000 likes. Infowars, a conspiracy-oriented outlet helmed by Alex Jones, immediately publicized unverified rumors claiming the fire had been "deliberately started" and linking the blaze to "anti-Christian attacks." Katie Hopkins, a racist British provocateur, was far more explicit , claiming that "Jewish and Christian Parisians" are being "hunted out of the city by Islamists, fleeing in their thousands," and affixing the hashtag #NotreDame.
Many figures on the right took the opportunity to turn Notre Dame into a metonym for Western civilization as a whole, intimating that far more than a cathedral was in peril. Just as the fire hit social media, conspiracy theorist and brain-supplements salesman Mike Cernovich dramatically tweeted that "The West has fallen." Shortly thereafter, fast-talking far-right pundit Ben Shapiro called Notre Dame a "monument to Western civilization" and "Judeo-Christian heritage." Given the already-raging rumors about potential Muslim involvement, these tweets evoked the specter of a war between Islam and the West that is already part of numerous far-right narratives; it was also a central thread in the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter.
Richard Spencer, professional racist and coiner of the term “alt-right,” openly advocated for such warfare, stating (and misspelling) his hopes that the fire would “spur the White man into action — to sieze power in his countries, in Europe, in the world,” and declaring such an insurgence a “glorious purpose.” And, as Buzzfeed’s Jane Lytvynenko reported , other, more oblique figures managed to go even further, from provocation in the abstract to more concrete incitement. A “parody account” masquerading as Fox News fabricated a tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that said, “They reap what they sow #NotreDame.”
Omar, under relentless attack by the right — including the president — became something of a totemic figure for those on social media already predisposed to see the fire as a Muslim conspiracy. Blogger David Futrelle, an expert on the worst of the Web, gathered dozens of tweets claiming that Omar was either celebrating the fire (variously “smiling inside,” “happy as a muslim terrorist,” “giddy and laughing”) or, somehow, had caused it. Multiple accounts questioned whether Omar was in Paris and whether her relatives had set the fire or asserted falsely that she was affiliated with a Muslim group that had set it.
While baseless, racist conspiracy-peddling is an unfortunate but constant feature of social media — the background noise to any unfolding event — more mainstream conservative media proved to be just as susceptible to a narrative of civilizational conflict. On “The News and Why It Matters,” a video program and podcast on TheBlaze.com, former Fox News mainstay and current talk-radio host Glenn Beck floated the possibility of a coverup by France’s government.
“If this was started by Islamists, I don’t think you’ll find out about it, because I think it would set the entire country on fire,” Beck told his co-hosts, adding that this was France’s “World Trade Center moment.” On Fox News, Tucker Carlson hosted far-right columnist Mark Steyn, who denounced France as “godless” and inveighed against the “post-Christian” country. As Carlson nodded along, brow furrowed, Steyn recounted a story of worshiping in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which is now, he declared, “in a Muslim suburb,” and asserted that rebuilding Notre Dame, as President Emmanuel Macron had promised to do, would be pointless.
By Tuesday morning, French authorities had declared the fire extinguished. The structure of Notre Dame is intact, although its spire, a 19th-century addition, collapsed. But the conflagration of conspiracy, a corruption of the natural human tendency to assign meaning to events, rages through our information sphere unchecked. It should not take the imprecations of journalists to restrain this dangerous flow of misinformation. It is past time that those who stoke inflammatory rhetoric, knowing its potential to catalyze racist violence, were made to stop playing with fire — before it’s too late to control the inferno.
Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn.