In the days following the Paris attacks, the Internet has seen everything: from a message containing a false alert (causing Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to step in) to the most absurd theories, and then on to stacks of months-old Photoshopped images or pictures being recycled and shared.
It has been more than just a week of pain, intense investigations reaching the four corners of Europe, and more or less veritable alerts. This week — after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks — has also been a week full of hoaxes (entirely made up news items, stories and theories) and half-hoaxes (truths that have been refashioned long after closing time or out of context), up to the point that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was forced to intervene. As he inaugurated the new emergency room at Rome’s Santo Spirito Hospital yesterday morning, he condemned a WhatsApp audio message circulated on Thursday, where a mother warns her daughter of an imminent attack on Rome. She explains that she discovered the threat after speaking with “Anastasia’s mom, who works at the Ministry of Interior.” It seems an investigation will probably be launched for issuing a false alarm.
It was all rubbish. Late yesterday evening, the woman responsible for the message handed herself in to police, although some things are yet to be clarified. The WhatsApp message has been absolutely denied by Renzi, who recorded a counter message, which was shared on Friday, saying: “They think they’re being cute, maybe funny, but they do not realize that they have provoked and created a climate of further fear, or even panic. I ask everyone not to fall for it, to care about the climate they want to create.” Hoaxes work exactly in this way. Despite having little or no credibility, like rust they weaken people’s nerves, polluting (and sometimes playing tricks with) correct information and contributing to the creation of a climate of uncertainty and distrust. It’s exactly the opposite of what should happen in situations such as the current one.
After reviewing the hoaxes that have been making the rounds since the night of Nov. 13, a broad picture emerges consisting of four macro-categories that have been hit: WhatsApp and social networks, concocted declarations from politicians across the world, the entire undergrowth of false images or pictures recovered from the recent-ish past that have been sent on as if they were new, and finally, conspiracy theories — some of which are almost unrepeatable.
It is not just the audio message from the mom worried about young people going out in the capital. WhatsApp is increasingly becoming the ideal platform for chain letters and tall tales of death. Among other messages relating to Paris, in the last few days a message titled “On est tous Paris” — “we are all Paris” — has been circulated. Attached is the photo of a baby. When clicked, it can infect the device. In general, it is never a good idea to open or save multimedia attachments from unknown sources (although the most serious issue with WhatsApp is that it seems to show a vCard, a virtual business card); however, there is no obvious sign that it is a virus. And the fact is that as usual, it’s a ploy pulled out of thin air.
When it comes to social networks, the lie that would be considered hilarious, if it did not revolve around this unprecedentedly serious issue, relates to Facebook’s initiative to give users the opportunity to place a French flag filter on their profile pictures. One post that was shared on Zuckerberg’s site, on blogs and other online locations claims that refined Islamic State hackers (it is worth mentioning here that a manual on cryptography discovered by some researchers from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point Combating Terrorism Center was hardly flattering to the terrorist group’s information technology abilities) would be capable of tracing all the users who have applied this effect to their profile picture. As if it were necessary, the Italian page “Una vita da social” — created by the Italian State Police and Ministry of Education and aimed at promoting online safety — obviously intervened, just as with the infected WhatsApp message. The news that the terrorists allegedly communicated through PlayStation 4 chat is also technically rubbish: The Belgian minister of the interior had alluded to this days before on Nov. 10.
The Statements of Politicians
One of the first statements to end up in the Twitter mill (a real one, but dating back months) was a tweet from Republican presidential candidate and multibillionaire Donald Trump regarding the necessity of arming people to protect them from these things. Posted on Jan. 7, 2015, it has been resurrected and become a falsity. In the agitation of the first hours, even French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud sent a scathing reply to the magnate. Other invented statements include Barack Obama’s proposal to make next December “National Muslim Appreciation Month” and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks that — true to his tough, resolute image — he wants to use atomic weapons against terrorists from the self-styled Islamic State group. Not even Viktor Petrov — Putin’s television alter-ego in “House of Cards” — would have said, “To forgive the terrorists is up to God but to send them to him is up to me.” Obviously, none of this was said in the Kremlin nor at the White House.
Pictures and Photoshopped Images
Hogging the spotlight in this area are the bombs dropped by French airplanes on Raqqa, Syria, two days after the attacks on the City of Lights. Obviously, “From Paris with Love” was not written on the sides of the planes. Le Monde and Libération have confirmed as much. And then, there was the photoshopped image of poor Verendeer Jubbal, the Canadian Sikh who was falsely transformed into a terrorist, a Quran put in the place of his iPad and a belt of explosives that was not there in the original. The very sophisticated photo was published by the site Khilafah News, alongside the ranting and raving of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s terrorists.
In the hours following the attacks, images of monuments illuminated with the “tricolore” in half the world’s cities multiplied on social media. Many of them were in fact lit up in red, white and blue in the following days. But in the immediate aftermath, neither the Empire State Building (but the Freedom Tower) in New York, nor the monument commemorating those who fell in the Algerian war for independence, nor even the Giza pyramids in Egypt were lit up like the French flag. It does not end there. There are fabricated stories (like that of a woman who escaped three similar attacks, or of the Muslim Zouheir at the Stade de France) and images of other protests (for example an anti-immigration event in Dresden, Germany in 2014 or a Palestinian demonstration supporting a ceasefire in 2012) that have been recycled in the aftermath as a show of German solidarity and of joy in Gaza for the dead Parisians, respectively. The same can be said for a photo of the American band, Eagles of Death Metal. The theater in the picture that has been republished on social sites is obviously not the Bataclan. Even a piece of artwork created by the duo Lucie & Simon in 2008 called “Silent Witness” and dedicated to a future of cities where there are no people has been circulated as if it is an image of Paris, deserted the morning after the attacks. Another hoax sent out in the first few hours captured a fire in the refugee camp at Calais (an accident, not arson — the photo was of a blaze that happened on Nov. 2). Dozens of photos of this kind — recycled or fake — have been published.
Conspiracies and Complots
Alongside the usual numerology theories — the attacks allegedly took place 11 months and nine days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, clearly harkening back to the Sept. 11 attacks, but the fact is that the period between the attacks is actually 10 months and six days; you can see that from a distance — some truly unacceptable ones have blossomed. One particularly worth noting came from an Italian professional conspiracist who doubts the existence of some of the victims, including the young Italian girl killed at the Bataclan, Valeria Solesin. Why the doubt? Well, there’s no Facebook profile attributable to her. Other theories put the Russian Secret Services in play, claiming they are guilty of having set the whole thing up alongside their trans-Alpine counterparts, to push the French into increasing their involvement in raids on Islamic State group territory. Other conspiracy experts have suggested the usual: U.S. involvement; some, even Pope Francis. At the end, unfortunately, no one if not perhaps the French secret services — the real secret services — could prevent such an attack, certainly not the post on the forum of a site dedicated to video games (Jeuxvideo.com) that wound up on Reddit announcing explosions, grenades and kamikazes. That message, despite being connected to dates in November, was from September 2014.