Paris attacks: Debunking the conspiracy theories
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With every new terrorist attack, new conspiracy theories quickly emerge. Their goal is always to go against the official version of events. And the November 13 attacks in Paris are no exception. Dozens of posts and videos exposing these theories have spread online – some of them as early as the night of the attacks. However, they often fail to back their claims with supporting evidence and at best they try to convince with half-baked truths. Their objective is always to spread doubt. Here are a few examples…
The actress who cries at every terrorist attack?
When conspiracy theories are debunked by other Internet users, it’s rarely enough to keep them from spreading. This case is a good example. These photos, which have been widely shared online, are said to be of an actress whose role, the conspiracy theorists say, is to act like a distraught witness at terrorist attacks “orchestrated by our governments”. They claim they’ve spotted the same woman at the Boston marathon bombing, at the Aurora movie theatre shooting, and at Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.
But if you look a bit closer, they don’t look all that much alike, apart from the fact that they all have brown hair and are crying. And in the past, journalists have already tracked down these three women, proving they are not one and the same.
However, this has not stopped some people from claiming that this “actress” was also present at the November 13 Paris attacks. They used a photo of a young brown-haired woman being evacuated by firemen, taken by an AFP photographer.
The woman’s face has since been blurred by the press agency to preserve her anonymity, but our journalists were shown the non-blurred version. Unsurprisingly, it is clearly not the same woman as in any of the other photos.
“It must be fake, since the Internet predicted it!”
Following the attacks, Internet users pointed out posts on social networks that they saw as strangely premonitory, leading them to believe the authorities were aware of the impending tragedy.
This tweet, which was published two days before the attacks, had been widely shared since:
The account has since gone offline.
In reality, this Twitter user is no prophet, just a particularly prolific guesser. The account PZFeed Ebooks generates automatic tweets, usually false and random information that looks like news headlines.
As this capture shows, the “premonitory” death toll of the Paris attacks was a pure coincidence.
This account tweeted the same toll, “120 dead and 270 injured”, for Ebola (published on November 10), for an attack on a Nigerian mosque (published on October 6), for a school massacre in Peshawar (published on September 9), etc…
Another “prophecy” has also circulated widely on the Internet. An internet user took a screen grab from a message posted on a popular website, jeux-video.com. Using photo editing software, he then changed the message’s content.
In the original message, posted on November 5, a forum user complained about all the advertising on the site. Here’s the original message:
Translation: “Seriously, we can’t take it anymore! … Hello, I’ve noticed that more and more forum users have been complaining (and rightly so) about the full-screen publicity; it’s very annoying! …It would be great if the administrators could read up on the negative effects of forcing publicity on people. It’s outdated, useless, it annoys everyone… Thanks guys :)”
But after being edited, the message becomes a “prophecy”:
Translation: “Please read, this is very serious. Hello everyone. In the next few days, there will be terrorist attacks all over Paris. In different spots. Be careful. This is not a joke. There will be many deaths. Probably more than 100. Explosions, grenades, suicide bombers. Stampedes. We can already start the hashtag #prayforparis. Stay strong”
Not enough damage to a restaurant?
The following conspiracy theory is perhaps the one that, at first, is the most intriguing – at least, for anyone who isn’t an expert on suicide bombings.
The video starts with images from the TV channel Russia Today. The camera films the outside of the Comptoir Voltaire, a restaurant in Paris’ 11th arrondissement where a suicide bomber blew himself up Friday night, severely injuring several people, including the waitress who was taking his order. In the footage, you can see forensics experts working behind the restaurant’s windowpane. The conspiracy theorist whose voice comments these images says he finds it strange that the window wasn’t blown out; the glass only has a few holes in it. He also notes that outside, on the sidewalk, most of the tables and chairs stayed upright, with only a few falling over. And no blood in sight.
Sure, this looks strange at first glance, especially since the few articles detailing the attack – which was eclipsed by the heavy death toll in other parts of the 11ème arrondissement – reported that the suicide bomber blew himself up on the terrace. So we contacted a journalist for the French magazine l’Express, who photographed the scene. He explained that yes, the suicide bomber did in fact blow himself up at a terrace – but it was the indoor, heated terrace, right behind the windowpane, not the small terrace out on the sidewalk.
Here are some of the photos that this journalist, Alex Sulzer, posted to Twitter. They show the damage inside the indoor terrace, including blood stains and little pieces of cotton, which restaurant workers said came from the suicide bombers’ coat lining.
Comptoir Voltaire (bld Voltaire), une quinzaine de blessés parmi les clients + une serveuse, selon un salarié. pic.twitter.com/pXYKgUJ4Hl— Alex Sulzer (@Alexsulzer) November 14, 2015
Sulzer explains that the terrace was ravaged along several metres, but that the rest of the restaurant was practically intact: “Just a few metres away, there were still plates full of food on the tables.” A nearby store owner showed him video surveillance footage of the explosion, which he described as “what looked like dust bursting into the air, then, panicked passerby running on the sidewalk”.
So, why so little damage – was it a hoax, like the conspiracytheorists believe, or a miracle? Neither. After consulting with several military and police sources, it turns out that this is not so improbable. Weak loads, as were apparently used in this case and at the Stade de France, can give off a very limited blast and still kill the explosive vest’s wearer. Moreover, if, for example, the suicide bomber wore explosives on his torso only and had his back to the windowpane when the explosion took place, the shockwave would have spread out in front of him, limiting the damage in the back. However, simply analyzing such footage is not sufficient to determine what actually happened. What’s certain is that this conspiracy theory doesn’t hold water.