The alt-right did everything they could in order to tie Monday's devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to "Muslim terrorism" and they did it at record speed thanks to the power of social media.
As a conflagration spread through the ancient timbers of Notre Dame Cathedral’s attic on Monday, a parallel fire was spreading on social media. This one was willfully set, a series of conspiracy theories neatly slotted into preexisting cultural biases. And soon enough, willing believers were aflame with hate.
The conspiracy theorizing began almost as soon as the blaze did, right when people saw the shocking, transfixing video of the cathedral’s spire toppling. While French authorities began to assert almost immediately that the fire was apparently accidental, the brief gap between the startling images’ generation and their explication was enough for far-right figures to exploit with their own sinister insinuations. Their prevailing view was nearly identical and, apparently, completely false: that the fire was deliberate and most probably set by Muslims.
Conservative gadflies on social media were among the first to leap to dark conclusions about the blaze, even as it raged: Matt Walsh, a conservative blogger who identifies himself as a “theocratic fascist” in his Twitter bio, wrote, “I don’t understand how a fire of this magnitude could happen accidentally,” accumulating nearly 9,000 likes. Infowars, a conspiracy-oriented outlet helmed by Alex Jones, immediately publicized unverified rumors claiming the fire had been “deliberately started” and linking the blaze to “anti-Christian attacks.” Katie Hopkins, a racist British provocateur, was far more explicit, claiming that “Jewish and Christian Parisians” are being “hunted out of the city by Islamists, fleeing in their thousands,” and affixing the hashtag #NotreDame.
Many figures on the right took the opportunity to turn Notre Dame into a metonym for Western civilization as a whole, intimating that far more than a cathedral was in peril. Just as the fire hit social media, conspiracy theorist and brain-supplements salesman Mike Cernovich dramatically tweetedthat “The West has fallen.” Shortly thereafter, fast-talking far-right pundit Ben Shapiro called Notre Dame a “monument to Western civilization” and “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Given the already-raging rumors about potential Muslim involvement, these tweets evoked the specter of a war between Islam and the West that is already part of numerous far-right narratives; it was also a central thread in the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the alleged Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter. (On Tuesday, Shapiro called this article “simply gross” and said he called Notre Dame a monument to Western civilization “because it is,” not because of “malicious intent.“) Richard Spencer, professional racist and coiner of the term “alt-right,” openly advocated for such warfare, stating (and misspelling) his hopes that the fire would “spur the White man into action — to sieze power in his countries, in Europe, in the world,” and declaring such an insurgence a “glorious purpose.” And, as Buzzfeed’s Jane Lytvynenko reported, other, more oblique figures managed to go even further, from provocation in the abstract to more concrete incitement. A parody account masquerading as Fox News fabricated a tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that said, “They reap what they sow #NotreDame.”
Omar, under relentless attack by the right — including the president — became something of a totemic figure for those on social media already predisposed to see the fire as a Muslim conspiracy. Blogger David Futrelle, an expert on the worst of the Web, gathered dozens of tweets claiming that Omar was either celebrating the fire (variously “smiling inside,” “happy as a muslim terrorist,” “giddy and laughing”) or, somehow, had caused it. Multiple accounts questioned whether Omar was in Paris and whether her relatives had set the fire or asserted falsely that she was affiliated with a Muslim group that had set it.
It's pretty clear that any disaster like this is going to be repurposed in order to cause the violent right to cause bloodshed, either they inspire another Christchurch or Las Vegas shooter and terrorize the rest of us, or they constantly mark Muslims and their allies on the left for violence. After a while, the numbing despair exacts a psychic as well and health toll.
They're winning this war. They have a playbook ready to go for disasters of all shapes and sizes and it will be used again and again and again.