Social media platforms ‘failed to counter Notre Dame fire misinformation’

The Notre Dame Cathedral fire presented social media companies with one of the first major tests of their nascent programmes aimed at fighting misinformation in real time – and critics say they failed.

As footage of the cathedral burning was uploaded to YouTube by major news providers, anti-misinformation algorithms launched by the video-sharing site last year kicked in. Unfortunately, the algorithms wrongly identified the videos as footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, apparently a result of the prominent plume of smoke common to both videos.

As a result, multiple providers found their videos had been appended with a link to an Encyclopaedia Britannica article about the attacks. The feature is supposed to counter common conspiracy theories about subjects such as the moon landings and whether or not the earth is flat, as well as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

YouTube apologised for the mistake, saying its systems “sometimes make the wrong call”. Other aspects performed better: a search for Notre Dame is automatically recognised as a search for a news event, pushing videos from legitimate news agencies to the top of the results.

But that has failed to stop misinformation about the fire from raging on the video-sharing site and elsewhere. One video of the flames, with 36,000 views, has had the audio edited to suggest that Islamic observers were crying “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”), in celebration. Another zooms in on a figure apparently wearing a hi-vis vest and hard hat, captioning it as a “Muslim at Notre Dame”.

These have been accompanied by other claims, spread in comments on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and on “independent” media sites, that attempt to suggest the fire was deliberately started. One said it was “suspicious” that “officials have stated there was no work being done and the cathedral was empty”; another tweet, since deleted, claimed to be from someone who knew an employee at the church, and said they had been told it was an act of arson.

There were also tweets from accounts purporting to be news outlets such as CNN and Fox News, claiming that the fire was caused by “an act of terrorism”, and spreading false claims about the reaction of the US congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

The Paris public prosecutor, Rémy Heitz, said on Tuesday that “nothing indicates” the Notre Dame blaze, which brought the building’s spire and roof crashing down, was started on purpose. The cathedral had been undergoing intensive restoration work, which firefighters said could be linked to the inferno, investigators said.

As well as outright lies, misinformation was spread in other ways. A 2016 news story about an apparent plot to blow up the church has been widely spread over the past 24 hours, frequently without mentioning that the story is three years old.

The Guardian’s story on the plot was linked to from the homepage of the influential rightwing news site Drudge Report, sending tens of thousands of readers to a three-year-old story. The Guardian’s version of the story contains a clear disclaimer that the news is “more than two years old”. Many publishers do not include such disclaimers, and some outlets even rewrote the story after the fire.

While not crossing into misinformation, key figures on the far right have used the fire to further stoke anti-Muslim fears. In a tweet, Alice Weidel, the parliamentary group leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, the country’s largest opposition party, implied a connection between the fire and previous anti-Christian “attacks” in France.

“During Holy Week Notre Dame burns. March: second largest church Saint-Sulpice burns. February: 47 attacks in France,” Weidel wrote.

“The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe speaks of a significant increase,” she added, including a link to a March article in a German Catholic magazine headlined “Catholic churches desecrated across France”.

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