As politician Christopher J. Hale watched the Notre Dame cathedral burn on Monday from Washington, D.C., he heard from a Jesuit friend in Europe who claimed that the blaze had been deliberately set.
Hale, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in Tennessee last year and writes opinion columns for Time Magazine, tweeted his friend’s claim to his few thousand followers.
“A Jesuit friend in Paris who works in #NotreDame told me cathedral staff said the fire was intentionally set,” Hale wrote.
Hale quickly tweeted that his friend had “zero evidence” for the claim beyond a purported conversation with cathedral staff, and he deleted the original tweet minutes later.
But it only took those few minutes for his tweet to become a core piece of proof for right-wing conspiracy theorists who are convinced, without any actual evidence, that the fire was set by terrorists. With one tweet, Hale became sucked into a right-wing media machine eager to both rile up its audience and earn more traffic on social media.
“In retrospect, I absolutely never should have tweeted it in the first place,” Hale told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “I don’t think I had the foresight about how much the worst parts of the internet will grasp for straws in their conspiracy theories.”
Before he deleted the post, Hale’s post caught the eye of Jack Posobiec, a former promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory who now works as a reporter at pro-Trump cable channel One America News. Posobiec highlighted Hale’s claim that the fire had been deliberate to his own followers, which number more than 450,000.
Suddenly, Hale saw Twitter users across the world citing his tweet as proof that fire was committed by terrorists.
“I almost immediately said I was deleting the tweet,” Hale told The Daily Beast. “It was clear to me, though, that any record of the tweet was going to be weaponized very quickly.”
Hale’s tweet has become one of the most cited pieces of evidence for Notre Dame conspiracy theorists, even after French investigators said Tuesday that they found no evidence of arson and even though Hale was thousands of miles away from the fire when he sent his tweet.
Screenshots of Hale’s deleted tweet spread across Twitter. InfoWars wrote an entire article based on Hale’s tweet, citing it a headline as proof that the fire was “deliberately set.”
Far-right activist Pamela Geller highlighted Hale’s tweet on her blog in a post entitled “Notre Dame Cathedral Inferno “Intentionally Set.’” Geller’s post spread on social media, earning hundreds of retweets on her Twitter account alone. Other right-wing blogs, including The American Mirror and talk radio host Michael Savage’s site, also picked up and portrayed Hale’s unintentional error as fact.
“The tweet itself did not mention Islam whatsoever,” Hale said. “But immediately it was right-wing provocateurs, Islamophobes, who used it.”
A day later, Hale’s Twitter interactions are filled with people who see the deletion of his tweet as proof of a cover-up.
‘Should I use the Obama, ‘It’s a teachable moment?’” Hale said. “The big thing I would say is the weaponization of Twitter has evolved in such a way that no errant word, particularly in the midst of a crisis, is warranted.”