Paris terror: 10 internet hoaxes about the attacks debunked

Internet trolls and pranksters exploit these high-profile, high-coverage events for their own malicious ends

Caitlin Dewey
Tuesday 17 November 2015 19:26 GMT
The French flag and floral tributes are displayed on a barrier near a restaurant hit by the terror attacks near the Stade De France stadium in Saint-Denis
The French flag and floral tributes are displayed on a barrier near a restaurant hit by the terror attacks near the Stade De France stadium in Saint-Denis

Misinformation is common online; so common, in fact, that we debunk it every Friday. But in the wake of a major international tragedy, Internet rumors only become more frequent and more damaging. Often that’s because people are frightened and seeking information as quickly as they can; in other cases, Internet trolls and pranksters exploit these high-profile, high-coverage events for their own malicious ends.

Timeline of Paris attacks

In either case, a number of hoaxes and conspiracy theories have broken out in the aftermath of Friday’s horrific attacks in Paris. Below, we’ve debunked a few of them.

1. The Paris attacks were not, to our current knowledge, planned on a Playstation 4. That rumor seems to have originated with some bad reporting over at Forbes, where gaming contributor Paul Tassi claimed (a) that Belgian officials believed ISIS used PS4s to communicate and that (b) a console was found in this weekend’s raids. In fact, (a) those comments from Belgian officials were made days before the attack happened and (b) officials have released no information about the material gathered in the raids. Forbes has blamed a “reporting error”; said error is, unfortunately, now repeating all over the Web. To be clear, terrorists have used PlayStations to communicate — but there’s zero evidence, at this point, that that’s what happened here. [H/T Kotaku]

2. The Eiffel Tower did not go dark in honor of Paris victims. Several reporters and news organizations, most of them not local to France, tweeted heart-wrenching photos of the dark Eiffel Tower on Friday night: It had, they claimed, gone dark “in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack.” In fact, the Eiffel Tower turns off every night, as you can verify by visiting its Web site. Rurik Bradbury, one of the primary promoters of the rumors, told The Post that he is “fascinated” by “the very low bar for spreading a viral meme through a credulous public.” [H/T Dave Weigel]

3. The Calais refugee camp wasn’t torched in retaliation for the attacks. Shortly after the violence in Paris, another incident broke out to the north: A fire tore through “the Jungle,” a giant refugee camp in Calais, not far from the Belgian border. In its aftermath, some Twitter users shared pictures of the flames and claimed the camp had been sent ablaze in revenge. (“French people put fire to Syrian refugee camps in Calais after the Paris attacks,” reads one Arabic tweet, which France24 has translated.) Local authorities say the fire was clearly accidental, and no deaths have been reported. One aid group told Buzzfeed that 40 homes had been destroyed. [H/T France24]

4. This Sikh man was not one of the Paris attackers. But several news outlets reported that he was, after a smiling selfie of Veerender Jubbal — Photoshopped to include a copy of the Koran and a suicide vest — began making the Twitter rounds. Jubbal, who is neither Muslim nor European (“[I] am a Sikh dude with a turban. Live in Canada,” he wrote), believes he’s being targeted by Gamergate, of whom he’s been critical.

While there’s little hard evidence to support that association, it’s very clear that the “incriminating” photo of Jubbal’s a fake. The original — in which he’s holding an iPad and wearing a blue plaid shirt — can still be found in his old tweets. [H/T Soraya McDonald]

5. ‘Battlefield 3′ did not predict the attacks. “Comrades,” the sixth mission in the first-person shooter “Battlefield 3,” occurs at an inauspicious place and time: At Paris’ Euronext exchange on Nov. 13, 2014. Apart from the day of the month and the city, there’s little else in common between “Battlefield” and Friday’s events. (This particular installment involves wresting a nuclear bomb back from fictional Iranian terrorists.) That very minor coincidence has, however, set off the tin-hat crowd — though even the far-fetched theorists of Reddit’s r/conspiracy had the good sense to shut it down.

6. A Twitter account called @PZBooks did not predict them, either. On Nov. 11, two days before the attacks, the Twitter bot @PZBooks sent an ominous tweet: “Death toll from Paris terror attack rises to at least 120.” That would be very creepy and inexplicable, if it wasn’t a semi-inevitable consequence of how @PZBooks works. Like other bots in the “ebook” genre, it mashes up headlines tweeted from a legitimate feed — in this case, @PZF — into new, absurd headlines.

Usually, the new headlines don’t make sense. But occasionally they do: In this case, one Twitter user theorized, the bot appears to have pulled from stories about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and an explosion in Nigeria. The result is eerie, but it’s not that far-fetched/unforeseeable: The account also “predicts” that “vigils and protests are planned for today,” which seems likely.

7. Parisians at the Place de la Republique did not hold a sign saying “Not Afraid.” That image, while real, was taken in January by the journalist Sruthi Gottipati; it was tweeted Friday by the political scientist Ian Bremmer, who gave no indication that it was from earlier in the year.

8. Donald Trump did not tweet that that the tragedy “took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world.” Well, he did — but he did it almost 11 months ago, shortly after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The tweet recirculated widely over the weekend, largely in critical contexts. In a similar vein, Pope Francis also did not tweet that attacks like this one made the Earth more like “an immense pile of filth;” that comment was actually made in reference to climate change and pollution last June. [H/T Quartz]

9. “Crisis actors” from Sandy Hook, Boston and Oregon were not at the scene of the Paris attack. The pernicious and ever-growing myth of the “Sandy Hook girl” is only proof of the fact that, if you comb through enough news photos, you’ll eventually find a thin brunette. As the Washington Post has written before, these women are demonstrably, identifiably different people — not that that’s soothed hardcore conspiracy theorists.

10. A lot of those Isobel Bowdery accounts are fake. Twenty-two-year-old Isobel Bowdery’s harrowing account from the Bataclan became an international must-read over the weekend — so much so, in fact, that a handful of hoaxers have tried to get in on the action. As of this writing, there are at least three fake Bowdery accounts; some of them have been used to share political messages. “We stand with Paris and we don’t care about Syria and Iraq,” one account posted. [H/T Business Insider]

© Washington Post

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