As Notre Dame burned in Paris, images of people grieving while they watched a fire damage the iconic cathedral started to populate social media feeds.
"It is like losing a member of one’s own family," one man told the New York Times, which reported onlookers were gasping, covering their mouths in horror and wiping away tears.
But one image being shared on Facebook, among other platforms, is an image of two men who appear to be smiling as they duck under police tape with Notre Dame in flames behind them.
"Muslims laughing while Notre Dame is burning…" said one account that posted the photo to Facebook on April 15.
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
That’s because we don’t know anything about the men in the photo—what they’re doing and if they are Muslim, notably. But what’s more, a media forensics expert told PolitiFact the photo was doctored.
Searching for the picture online, we found it posted on the website of Sputnik, a news site run by the Russian government. The image of the men, which has a Sputnik copyright symbol below it, is part of a 9:29 p.m. update about the fire that says "evacuation underway at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris’ Ile de la Cite."
But the National Center for Media Forensics at University Colorado Denver pointed us to this version of the image, which appeared online before the Sputnik story. Analyzing that image, the center’s researchers concluded that the men were inconsistent with the rest of the photograph.
"The two front persons are inserted," Catalin Grigoras, the center’s director, told PolitiFact in an email. He also noted that zooming in on the right cheek of the man standing on the right reveals obvious editing. (Others believe the photo is authentic. See our update at the bottom of this post.)
Whether or not the image is authentic, it has been wrongly used to support claims that the cathedral fire was a terrorist attack and fueled anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The photo appeared on the website Red White and F You! With Mindy Robinson, which featured a story on the top of its homepage April 16 titled, "Notre Dame Cathedral is Burning...and the Media refuses to state the obvious (it’s terrorism)." (The fire’s cause is under investigation but still unknown.)
"Laughing and smiling," Robinson writes about the image with the men. "Man, I sure do wonder what specific group of people stood to gain from all this #heavyMFsarcasm."
One Twitter user described them as "Extremist Muslims."
But another Twitter user reached out to @HoaxEye about the image. The account is run by Janne Ahlberg from Finland, according to the Twitter bio, with the aim of debunking hoaxes. The tagline of the HoaxEye website: "A fake image is worth zero words."
When the user asked Ahlberg about the photo, Ahlberg replied, "Saying that this is a photo of persons ‘laughing while Notre Dame is on fire’ is just appalling. (As far as I know) we don’t know yet anything about these persons, situation etc."
A satirical Irish website, TheLibel.ie, seemed to wink at this when it posted a story on April 16 called, "Muslim man snapped laughing in Paris just 3 months before Notre Dame Fire."
"Ciara Warlock said she was astounded at the time when she seen the man laughing for no apparent reason," the story says, "but it all made sense today when she reviewed the picture on her iPhone Xs."
We rate this Facebook post Pants on Fire.
Update April 22, 2019: After publication, Sputnik responded to this fact-check. In a post, they condemned the use of the photo by some to "speculate about the religious beliefs of these two men based on their appearance only." They also claimed that the photo was authentic and not doctored.
That prompted other organizations to examine the photo and its authenticity. Nieuwscheckers, a fact-checking organization based in the Netherlands, said they believe the photo to be authentic after consulting with a photography expert who assisted the World Press Photo jury in checking submissions for manipulation. Lead Stories, a U.S. fact-checker, also believes the image is authentic.
Grigoras, the expert we spoke to at the National Center for Media Forensics at University Colorado Denver, has not changed his position.
We have updated the headline of this fact-check and some of the content of the article to be more clear.
The broader point of the fact-check, that an image shows two Muslim men laughing as Notre Dame burned, remains unchanged. The posts are highly misleading, and rate Pants on Fire.