Knowing about something is not the same as knowing something, and neither one is the same as being able to do anything about it. Smoke was rising from the Notre Dame Cathedral: that was an available fact, right away. Then came the dislocation and confusion about how that fact fit into the world.
It was possible, quickly, to establish some context for that first fact. The smoke was coming from the roof, the roof was under renovation—these things meant that the likely answer to the first questions was not some intentional act of atrocity, but an accident. If someone had set out to destroy or terrorize the cathedral, they probably would not have started at the roof, right. Someone had made a mistake and now the mistake would be fixed.
The mistake was not fixed. The pictures and video clips weren’t arriving in exactly chronological order as they propagated online, but there was still an overall tendency or progression among them, and the tendency was more smoke, coming from more of the cathedral roof, and with flames emerging into view. It was possible to understand that it was just a fire, but the fire was not responding to that understanding.
It was under this exact strain that Donald Trump, the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, tweeted out “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” It was thickheaded, arrogant, and wrong, as always—the French went so far as to point out, later, that bombing the structure with flying water tankers would have been a terrible idea—but there was something identifiably pure and innocent behind it: Must act quickly! Putting out the fire was the obvious thing to do; how could it be that no one was doing it?
In place of comprehension, there were the algorithms. BuzzFeed reported that—well, not for nothing is BuzzFeed the wellspring of headline optimization:
YouTube’s New Fact-Check Tool Flagged Notre Dame Fire Coverage And Attached An Article About 9/11
There were the usual other active malevolent forces out there, tweeting speculatively about the fire as an assault on “the West” or pasting shouts of “Allahu Akbar” over the video, but the YouTube tool was malevolence rendered passive through the accumulated crookedness of the history of incentivized online behavior. No one needed to intervene to send the discussion off into derangement and rage-fantasy; derangement and rage-fantasy are the effective purpose of the dominant platforms. Someone from YouTube tried to explain it to BuzzFeed:
It’s unclear how the Notre Dame livestreams triggered the panel, but a spokesperson for YouTube said the “information panels” with links to third-party sources like Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia are activated by an algorithm.
“These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call,” the spokesperson added. “We are disabling these panels for livestreams related to the fire.”
Poor YouTube, captive to the whims of the rampaging and unpredictable algorithms built by YouTube!
The spire of the cathedral went up in flames and tilted over and fell. Video captured it from multiple angles and elevations. The soulless scammy content machine operating under the guise of what’s left of the Newsweek brand got 26,000 retweets and 23,000 likes by tweeting out something about a minor and easily contained fire that happened to have occurred at the Al-Aqsa Mosque (“Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque burns at the same time as fire engulfs Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris”). Earnest people who had been to Notre Dame or had admired it tweeted out their only occasionally self-centered expressions of grief and horror and, preemptively, loss. Notre Dame and its irreplaceable treasures were gone, all that was left to do was to mourn.
But that had been more guesswork, too. The fire was put out. The cathedral still stood, under its ruined roof. Many of its treasures had been spirited off to safety; photos from down on the inside showed a mess of burnt and fallen timber, but nothing like complete incineration. Apparently, the 12th and 13th century stonework had been able to endure the blaze. It was the apparatus that the 21st century used to watch it burn that felt uninhabitable.