Francisco Seco, AP
Workers, top, fix a net to cover one of the iconic stained glass windows of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Sunday, April 21, 2019. The fire that engulfed Notre Dame during Holy Week forced worshippers to find other places to attend Easter services, and the Paris diocese invited them to join Sunday's Mass at the grandiose Saint-Eustache Church on the Right Bank of the Seine River. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

In the moments and hours after Notre Dame burned, people all around the world united to offer thoughts, prayers and funds to rebuild the legendary cathedral that means so much to individuals all around the world. During this time we were able to see people of different backgrounds come together and support one another. We got to see the best of humanity. Sadly, we also saw some of the worst.

While the Notre Dame still burned, individuals started spreading false information about how the fire started. French officials ruled out arson and terrorism, saying it was most likely an accident tied to the repairs taking place while others, mostly white supremacists, spread false, Islamophobic rhetoric by saying this was an attack by Muslim terrorists. They used a blurry, pixelated and heavily edited video of CNBC’s livestream of the fire and a doctored picture as their “proof.” Thankfully, this claim was quickly debunked by reputable news organizations and fact-checking websites.

Nevertheless, pathetic conspiracy theories such as this one are prevalent whenever tragedies occur. Conspiracy theories were abundant after the mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida. Some people spread them out of malice, others do it to troll, and some spread them in order to try to understand the unexplainable.

The truth is secondary for those who spread false theories out of malice. They either believe the provable lie because it fits their own personal views or they know they’re lying and they just don’t care. They spread lies because it’s convenient for them, and when challenged with the truth, they have a tendency to double down on their lies because the truth does not fit the narrative they crafted.

For those trying to make sense of a tragedy, it’s understandable why they would be quick to believe the falsehood. It’s only natural for people to want an explanation of horrible events taking place around the world. From mass shootings to accidents, people want to know one thing: Why?

That’s understandable. However, it leads to rushed judgments about ongoing events and throws logic out the window. In this situation, instead of waiting for French officials to explain what happened, people trusted a heavily edited video to make extreme connections and fill in the blanks. Even if we ignore the blatant Islamophobia from the post, immediately believing the video without any attempt to verify it is just bad practice.

Pizzagate and the shooting at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria is a perfect example of how spreading false conspiracy theories can bring harm to others. In 2016 a baseless conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” spread around the dark corners of the internet. It claimed that a D.C. area pizza place called Comet Ping Pong was secretly running a pedophile ring out of secret tunnels and had ties to Hilary Clinton. Comet Ping Pong and the neighboring stores were harassed by conspiracy theorists and one man believed the lie so much that he drove from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong armed, and fired a gun in the restaurant. Thankfully no one was injured, but there was a very real chance of someone getting hurt.

Thanks to modern technology we can find out almost anything instantly, but we can’t become complacent in our search for truth. We can’t trust everything we see online at face value. In order to not be fooled by those with ill intent, we need to go through life with a healthy amount of skepticism.

President George Washington said it best. In his "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," he said, “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any ... Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.”

Patience is key when tragedies occur. Rushing to judgement never helps anyone and does have the chance of hurting innocent people. Sometimes, like Notre Dame, terrible things happen by accident, and that’s it. Accidents happen, it’s a part of life. We can learn and grow from them.

4 comments on this story

The burning of Notre Dame is a tragedy, there’s no doubt about that, but we shouldn’t use it as an excuse to neglect logic in our thinking and automatically believe a blurry video found on Facebook. Falling for that video is like falling for an email from a “Nigerian prince” who wants to give you $10,000.

Some of the most basic things we can do during a tragedy is not spread false conspiracy theories and wait for information to come in from officials and reliable sources. Relying on questionable sources that have specific political agendas for truth in the moments after a tragedy does nothing but sow confusion and can cause potential harm.

The tools are available for us to do exactly as President Washington counseled and it’s easy to do. All it takes is some patience and a little extra effort.