Notre Dame de Paris fire lights up Twitter
Photo by Benoît Moser/BSPP via Getty Images
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The 850 year old cathedral that draws millions of visitors each year caught fire around 6:50 pm on April 16th. Since then, Twitter has been full of messages of compassion from around the world, mentions of the Al-Aqsa Mosque simultaneously burning down in Jerusalem, and, of course, conspiracy theories about what ignited the fire in Paris. NexaIntelligence allowed us to delve into these different conversations and understand fake from real in how english speakers around the world reacted to the event.
The first sub-conversation we noticed revolved around a 1.8 million USD GoFundMe campaign to rebuild three churches that recently burned down in the same parish in south Louisiana. The “historically black churches”, as the campaign describes them, were destroyed under suspicious circumstances. The campaign was the most shared link in our search on Notre Dame.
The second most shared link was of a video showing the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral detaching from the structure as flames engulfed it. Despite the 400 firemen on site, the building’s wooden roof essentially burned down, leaving the stone foundation below exposed to the elements.
Tweets deploring the loss of the cathedral as well as hopeful tweets rejoicing that the altar and cross were not destroyed also made it in top shares:
The two other top shares that caught our attention were: a link to the eponymous website of Fox News journalist Sara Carter, where she published an article titled “Democratic Lawmaker Compares Trump’s Presidency to Notre Dame Fire”, as well as a link to Muslim Hands, an international NGO fundraising, among other things, for the reconstruction of the Majid Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
The last top shared link was of a tweet arguing the American right has a “dangerous conspiratorial fixation on the idea the cathedral fire must have been an arson.”
Conspiracy theories coming from pro-Trump #MAGA flaunting accounts flew in all directions, from arguing that all valuable statues were removed for restoration before the fire intentionally, to mentioning Michelle Obama’s presence in Paris and inferring that April 15th is a “sacrifice day” due to the occurrence of tragedies on the same day in the past.
Top Hashtags helped inform our analysis of conspiracy theories, but hashtag use also revealed that Twitter users had delved into Notre Dame’s construction history and found that the cathedral’s architecture had been influenced by edifices in Syria, specifically, Idlib’s Qalb Lozeh basilica:
Next, we used NexaIntelligence’s lexical map to find out what other sub-conversations Twitter users were having about the cathedral’s destruction. Here’s what the map showed us:
The yellow and orange clusters respectively addressed the Louisiana church destructions and the Al-Aqsa mosque fire, which we had already taken note of. Browsing through the key words in those clusters gives us a better idea of the different opinions and controversies surrounding each incident.
The central dark blue cluster gathered all tweets referring to Notre Dame’s history, its withstanding wars and plagues, revolutions and societal changes, yet being so vulnerable to fire on an otherwise uneventful day in Paris.
The brown cluster at the bottom of the map gathered tweets referencing Victor Hugo’s depictions of Notre Dame, notably in his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which reportedly jumped in rankings on Amazon overnight.
Many users also tweeted to confront popular support for the millions of dollars pledged for the cathedral’s reconstruction, arguing that no such efforts were made by the world’s richest to counter humanitarian emergencies.
Among those tweets, many came from U.S. citizens who disapproved of their government’s reaction to the destruction of the French monument while it provided little to no support during recent American hardships:
Finally, we found that Top ReTweets summarized the different voices and takes of anglophone twitter conversations very accurately, lending some credence to the idea that RTs are endorsements, at least from a social network analysis perspective.
From mourners of Notre Dame to critics of seeing millions of dollars pledged to restoring a church despite international humanitarian catastrophes receiving relatively little funding. Overall, anglophone Twitter conversations were very dispersed and ambivalent about the Parisian cathedral’s demise and especially about the large amounts of money pledged to its reconstruction.
People used this opportunity to remind others on Twitter of the crises afflicting people elsewhere in the world, and to highlight the cathedral’s architectural roots in Syria, which is currently suffering from a full-fledged war involving international powers on its soil. With NexaIntelligence, we were able to sift through these conversations in order to get the full picture of anglophone Twitter user’s opinions of the cathedral’s destruction. The system also allowed us to explore the different topics in more depth, and to understand who made what arguments about the event and its aftermath.
Critically, our technology allows users to distinguish between conspiracy theories and real movements online, a crucial task at a time when disinformation and fake news regularly disturb access to trustworthy information.