9/11 Truthers, 20 Years Later
Following the events of 9/11 way back in 2001, it was inevitable that a few wacky conspiracy theories were going to arise, as happens around nearly every major world event. But something sets 9/11 conspiracy theories apart from all the others: their unique longevity. And it turns out there's solid science behind why a fantasy like 9/11 Truth is the one that endures.
On September 11, 2001, practically everyone in the world with access to a television shared perhaps the most impactful experience of our generation. We watched countless people dying, live onscreen; ranging from hundreds in the blink of an eye when a plane struck, to one at a time as jumpers escaped the flames, to thousands over the span of a few seconds during an act of de-engineering violence that might well never again be witnessed. Conspiracy theories were unfortunately inevitable, and they began appearing that very same day, and each would have been laughable as kindergarten-level foolishness were it not for the fact that intelligent adults actually believed them. Over the subsequent years as investigations exhaustively proved the complete picture behind the live broadcast horrors, less and less — and finally zero — room was left for the false alternate explanations, and common logic would dictate that the conspiracy theories would have been squeezed out and vanished. But they did not. In fact, they flourished. And today, 20 years later, they are — in direct contradiction to all that is rational — as strong as ever.
Conspiracy theories have always been a part of human culture; such ideation transcends generations, national boundaries, and political partisanship — a 2016 poll on YouGov found about equal belief that the government helped plan 9/11 among Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters: 17% and 15% respectively. The late 20th century had given birth to the Kennedy assassination, the Apollo Moon hoax, the Gulf of Tonkin, and Area 51. But when world calendars made that momentous Y2K crossover, we awoke in a new world: a world in which YouTube existed, and gave megaphones to anyone who wanted one in a way that no previous technology ever had before. Before we knew what was happening, people everywhere were learning that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the buildings were struck by American cruise missiles, or were brought down by explosives, or that the airliners were holograms, or that Jews were behind it all. As Garrett Graff wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
No longer were conspiracy theories confined to mimeographed newsletters delivered by the US Postal Service to lone basement-confined obsessives. For the first time in world history, it was possible for a conspiracy theory to be commoditized to the point of normalization, to be on everyone's lips, to be accessible to anyone who could click a mouse. In 2005, the Internet video Loose Change taught 9/11 Truth mythology to tens of millions of people worldwide, and for a while was the #1 most-watched movie on Google Video, the leading platform at the time; it was followed in 2007 by the broad-spectrum conspiracy manifesto series Zeitgeist making many of the same absurdly anti-factual claims. People who were conspiracy curious had, for the first time in their lives, open, widespread validation of the suspicions they had always previously had to keep closeted.
Then in 2006, conspiracy theorist Richard Gage founded the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, a registry of 9/11 conspiracy theorists who self-identify as architects, engineers, students, or members of the general public. Its Facebook page has half a million followers, and an active community today. And it's this little detail that's one of the reasons why 9/11 Truthism is still going strong 20 years later: it's profitable. Facebook makes money on active communities like this one. Loose Change, like countless other copycat 9/11 Truth videos, is still actively monetized on all the major streaming platforms, and according to IMDb Pro, its popularity remains just as high today as it was upon its release, in fact it's never taken a dip. While other false conspiracy theories like QAnon and Sandy Hook have been banned from social media platforms, 9/11 seems to be almost entirely immune from such punitive actions.
This is ironic, as anti-Semitism is woven deeply into 9/11 Truth mythology, and — on paper, anyway — race hatred is supposed to be one of the things social media networks have the least tolerance for. The Anti-Defamation League, which researches and exposes anti-Semitism, published a report as early as 2003 finding that anti-Semitism already was one of the primary driving forces behind 9/11 conspiracy theories, and predicted that this would continue to be the case into the future. At the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the ADL published another report summarizing some of the most popular promoters of anti-Semitic 9/11 Truthism and called out a number of YouTube videos and websites. In particular, they found Facebook was a virtual haven for these groups.
Even today, 20 years after 9/11, HBO is airing a 4-part documentary on 9/11 by noted director Spike Lee, who gives every indication of having become a full-throttle 9/11 Truther. Part 4, in particular, is little more than an infomercial for Richard Gage. Ever since becoming a prominent face in the 9/11 Truth community with his Architects & Engineers group, Gage has been in consistent lockstep with the anti-Semitic theorists who blame the terrorist attack on Jews. In his many podcast interviews, Gage has called COVID-19 a "deep state hoax" and has frequently said that vaccines are poisons designed to kill us. And yet as one of our very largest and most influential media companies, this is how HBO chooses to recognize the 20th anniversary of the most deadly terrorist attack ever on American soil — with anti-Semitism, thoroughly debunked pseudoscience, and broad-spectrum conspiracy mongering.
Why? You know why. It attracts eyeballs.
The monetization of conspiracy theories is not limited to social media companies and TV networks, and it's not limited to 9/11. In a 2021 article for the German publication DW, Jo Harper gave the example of Alex Jones and his InfoWars website and network:
Fanning the fears of lower-middle income America that the government is out to get them, can be very big business indeed. For Jones, 9/11 Truthism is not necessarily a belief or even a suspicion; it's a marketing tool that effectively separates those who feel marginalized and unrepresented from their money.
But the longevity of the 9/11 conspiracy theories has an even more powerful ally working on its behalf, and that's all the attention paid every year to the true events of 9/11. As perhaps the single most dramatic day in American history, 9/11 has a permanent place in our attention, and every year in September, television and internet networks alike will continue to broadcast programming to commemorate it. 9/11 will never be far from our minds. And consequently, peripheral topics like the attendant conspiracy theories will benefit from an annual amplification of a magnitude that other conspiratorial beliefs just don't get. It's marketing of an effectiveness that no amount of money could buy.
Taking all into account, we should not be surprised that 9/11 conspiracy theories are still popular — by some metrics, as popular as they ever have been — two decades later. In fact when you look at all the factors, the surprising outcome would be if they'd ever faded away.
If I were to summarize my take on the reasons that 9/11 Truthism is still going strong after 20 years, and shows no signs of ever letting up, I would give the following three reasons:
In one of my live shows that I often give to college audiences, I would always ask people's memories of where they were on 9/11. But it turns out that I've been doing Skeptoid long enough that I soon found college students had been too young in 2001 to have any memories of 9/11; and now it's most common that I have audiences in which nobody had yet been born when it happened. So I've actually had to cut that part of the show. It is a testament to how 9/11 conspiracy theories can outlive just about anything else; they've already outlived that one show of mine, and before long, they'll have outlived me and everyone else who has researched them, written about them, and even spread them. Taking our place will be a new generation — and I think we can expect that generation will be talking about these same exact things.
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