How to avoid falling for fake news about the Notre-Dame fire

Several online accounts shared false or misleading claims about the Notre-Dame fire in Paris on Monday evening.
Several online accounts shared false or misleading claims about the Notre-Dame fire in Paris on Monday evening.

The Notre-Dame fire in Paris was one of the leading topics on Twitter on Monday, with more than 3.5 million tweets in the 24 hours following the blaze that destroyed the cathedral's spire and most of its roof. But among the many posts that circulated online were several that made false or misleading claims.

Here's a breakdown of the fake news about the fire, and five tips on how to avoid falling for them.

1 - Look out for fake news accounts

On Monday night, several fake accounts using the logos of news organisations including CNN, BuzzFeed and FoxNews falsely tweeted that the Notre-Dame fire was an act of terrorism.

Tweets from a fake CNN account claiming that the Notre-Dame fire was an act of terrorism.

A fake FoxNews account tweeted fake quotes from Rep. Ilhan Omar.

These fake accounts, a few of which have already been deleted by Twitter, are easy to spot, as they do not have a blue verified check next to their names. They also have relatively few followers.

It's also a good idea to take a look at the accounts' Twitter bios. Several of them state clearly that they are parody accounts, a technique that allows the users behind the accounts to protect themselves and argue that readers were warned.

A fake BuzzFeed account states that it is a parody account but shared misleading information about the Notre-Dame fire Tuesday evening. 

2. Beware of old news being recirculated

Fake news can sometimes appear in the form of old, legitimate news articles being reshared months or years later, after another major event. In this case, a 2016 article by The Telegraph on gas tanks and documents in Arabic found near the Notre-Dame cathedral was circulating on social media Monday evening.

The Telegraph article refers to an alleged ISIS plot in September 2016 to attack the historic cathedral. Three radicalised women were later charged by French prosecutors.

But several Twitter users, including the fake BuzzFeed account, shared the article as though it pertained to the Notre-Dame fire. Make sure always to verify news articles that are shared soon after a major event, particularly the date of publication. The Telegraph article has also been updated to include a reminder that the incident is unrelated to Monday's fire.

3. Do a reverse image search

Some online users shared photos allegedly showing the interior of the cathedral before the fire. Joseph Curl, a former editor of the conservative blog The Drudge Report, tweeted a photo of a church altar along with the comment, "This is gone. Very sad."

The altar featured in the photo, however, belongs not in the Paris cathedral but in the Notre-Dame of Montreal. A reverse image search (here's a guide on how to use the tool) quickly reveals where the photo comes from.

Curl's post, which has been retweeted more than 7,000 times, was soundly mocked by Twitter users, some of whom responded with photos of a Disneyland castle and the Las Vegas Eiffel Tower.


4. Listen for potentially edited videos

Some now-deleted videos on Twitter and YouTube claimed that men can be heard shouting "Allahou Akbar" as they watch Notre-Dame burn.

The original video, in which no such shouts are heard, was posted by Russia Today and later shared by a Brazilian news outlet. 

Several details in the video that alleges that men are heard shouding "Allahou Akbar" indicate that it's a fake. For example, the sound of fire is heard one second after the video starts. If the video was real, that sound should be heard consistently throughout the footage. The fire also sounds as though it is very close to the camera, even though the latter is clearly located several thousand feet away.

The video is in fact a mashup of several different sounds, including that of the fire and of the "Allahou Akbar" shouts. It's easy to find samples of the latter online: the video below compiles several similar sound effects.

5. Look closely at photos

Some online users shared a photo in which a small human-like figure can be seen standing on the roof of the cathedral as smoke billows in the background, claiming that it was proof that the fire was an intentional attack.

But the figure is in fact a statue of the Virgin Mary, the only one to have survived the French Revolution, according to the Agence France-Presse fact-checking team. Here are a few photos from different angles that give a better view of the statue.

In addition, a video of a man walking on the southern tower of Notre-Dame has been circulating along with false claims that he was “a Yellow Vest” or “Muslim”.

It actually was a firefighter, as Checknews reports. They were already working in this tower as this CNBC stream, of better quality, shows (starting from 42 min) :

To learn more about how to verify photos online, check out our verification guide. You can also tweet at our debunking account, @InfoIntoxF24, if you see other potentially false or misleading claims.

This article was written by Corentin Bainier (@cbainier) and Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).