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Breaking News and Conspiracy Theories — The Case of the Notre Dame Fire

When the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire, the internet quickly filled with speculation about the cause and severity of the damage.

Grade level: Secondary

Lesson Links: Online Verification Skills



In April 2019, when the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire, the internet quickly filled with speculation about the cause and severity of the damage. Some of this false information was relatively harmless, but some of it was destructive.


In general, when news breaks, and when the facts of what has happened are not yet known, we should be careful about believing information. Rumours will spread, and some people will try to spin events to match pre-existing ideas about the world.


In Paris, authorities relatively quickly deemed the fire to be an accident, but this did not stop people from advancing theories about who started it and why.


One theme surrounding the fire was an islamophobic narrative — people asserting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it was set by Muslim individuals.


These conspiracy theories are examples of disinformation, the deliberate spreading of false information to cause harm. People will try to find evidence to support what they want to believe, as a way to spread fear and distrust of others, regardless of the facts.



Suggested Activities

  1. Watch this CIVIX video about Information Pollution, and review the difference between ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation.’
  2. Watch this video by BuzzFeed News where journalist Jane Lytvynenko explains the hoaxes that emerged around Notre Dame.
  3. Initiate a class discussion about how hoaxes and conspiracies can thrive in times of breaking news.


Guiding Questions

  • Why do you think major breaking news stories tend to spawn so much false and misleading information? Why do you think the Notre Dame fire, in particular, inspired so much disinformation?
  • recent study of Twitter shows that misinformation and disinformation spread much more widely and quickly than the truth on social media. Why do you think people are more likely to share false information than truth?
  • What do you think was the purpose of spreading disinformation about the Notre Dame fire? What do you think the people who created the disinformation hoped to achieve?
  • It is human nature to want to receive news as quickly and conveniently as possible, but accurate news often takes time. What do you think we can do to balance a desire for instant updates with the need for accuracy?



Glossary Terms

Conspiracy theory — A belief that powerful people or institutions are organizing to cause major news events, or hide important information about the world.


Disinformation — Deliberately false information created and spread with the intent to deceive and cause harm.


Hoax — A form of false information that intends to deceive or trick people into believing something that isn’t true. The intention of hoaxes is not always to cause harm, such as when the false information is intended as a joke.


Misinformation — Information that is false but that is created and/or spread without the intent to cause harm (though harm may result). The person sharing misinformation believes it to be true.



Video links

CIVIX Explains: Information Pollution 



Don’t Fall for these Hoaxes About the Notre Dame Fire, BuzzFeed News:  




Further Reading

A Timeline Of How The Notre Dame Fire Was Turned Into An Anti-Muslim Narrative, BuzzFeed News



Misinformation about the Notre Dame fire spread quickly on social media



Different Disaster, Same Theme: Hoaxes and Misinformation Spread Online after Notre Dame Fire


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