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10 September 2021

How 9/11 internet culture created a blueprint for modern conspiracy theories

The 11 September attacks coincided with the rise of the internet. A new strain of online paranoia was born.

By Sarah Manavis

It was a chilling image: a man visiting New York on a sunny autumn morning on 11 September 2001. He goes to the top of the World Trade Center – like many tourists did – to take a photograph on the building’s observation deck. The picture is snapped just as the first plane is about to hit the tower. It was an image that circulated on message boards in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks – the epitome of morbid bad timing. But, of course, it was a hoax; a meme commonly referred to as “9/11 Tourist Guy”.  

If you came across this picture in 2001, it would be easy to think it was real. Why would anyone create such a believable graphic? And to what end? They weren’t going to get any credit for making it, they were only going to fool people into believing that something trivial happened that, actually, didn’t.  

At the same time, in similar online spaces, other images started doing the rounds. Real, zoomed-in pictures of the skeletal structure of the Twin Towers, warped and stripped bare after the attack. Message board commenters began speculating how this could be: surely the jet fuel from the planes, which burns at 426-815°C, couldn’t have melted down industrial steel beams, which have a melting point of 1,482°C. While this question has repeatedly been proved as misguided (steel beams don’t need to melt in order to collapse), many began to use it as evidence for a burgeoning conspiracy theory: that the plane crash was staged, and the collapse of the towers was an inside job. On the internet, the theory quickly began to spread.  

In 2001, these suspicious reactions to world events were new and went effectively undetected. Those who believed these theories were branded the way conspiracy theorists always had been – as crackpots, existing only on the fringes of society. But 20 years on from the attacks, 9/11 conspiracy theories – also called the “9/11 truth” movement – are alive and well and growing. Now, conspiracy theories and disinformation seem inevitable – the expected digital aftermath of any major event.   

The 11 September attacks ushered in a new era of obsessive conspiracy theorism that was built to last. It created a blueprint for how modern conspiracy theories, aided by the internet’s particular affinity for gallows humour, grow – until they permeate mainstream discourse.  

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While 9/11 remains an extraordinary event, we cannot blame it entirely for the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories. Peter Knight, a professor of American studies at the University of Manchester, specialises in conspiracy theories and their hold on the American psyche. He explains that 9/11 paranoia, crucially, coincided with the rise of the internet.  

“Some 9/11 conspiracy theories are very much within the tradition of right-wing conspiracy theories associated with antisemitism, fears about the government, fears about the elite, and all these vague notions of the military-industrial complex that cross over between left and right,” he says. “But what really makes them unique is that they’re the first conspiracy theories that really take place during the internet age. Not fully part of what we could recognise now as Internet 2.0 and social media, but the beginnings of that. The beginning of user-generated content.” 

The most popular conspiracy theories of the 20th century – such as the idea that President John F Kennedy’s assassination was an inside job, or that the 1969 moon landing was faked – are based on the same paranoias as those surrounding 9/11. But the latter travelled further, faster thanks to early internet message boards, chatrooms, blogs, viral posts and chain emails.

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“There was an intensification of many strands that we’d already seen,” Knight continues. “So you get, for example, antisemitic conspiracy theories: that Jewish workers in the Twin Towers were warned in advance; or you get those conspiracy theories that see the government, the deep state and intelligence agencies as the ultimate enemy. All of these we’ve seen before, but they came in a more concentrated fashion and they became more visible – if not necessarily more popular – than previous conspiracy theories, partly because of the role the internet was playing.”

[See also: Why Covid-19 conspiracy theories are flourishing]

Garrett M Graff, a journalist, historian and author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, argues that the left-wing anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War blogosphere particularly helped to accelerate 9/11 conspiracy theories in the 2000s.  

“The progressive blogosphere was where, in many ways, the internet began,” he says. “And it embraced this idea that the Bush administration was doing the bidding of the Saudi government, which spread into this dark idea that the US government was complicit in the mass murder of thousands of its own citizens.” 

But alongside this partly left-wing influence on 9/11 conspiracy theories in the early days, Graff argues that what we might now recognise as traditional forms of spreading misinformation were rife. Both Knight and Graff cite Loose Change as one of the greatest catalysts for exacerbating the spread of 9/11 conspiracy theories – a DVD series of 9/11 conspiracy theories that were then uploaded to YouTube and quickly circulated online.  

“There’s an argument that the first viral hit on YouTube was Loose Change,” Graff says. “And the conspiracy theories are pretty compelling. Almost the entire thing has been debunked by people who know what they’re talking about, but you don’t know that if you’re watching.” Now, it’s easy to find YouTube series’ the length of feature films on any popular conspiracy theory, from “Pizzagate” to the suggestion that Bill Gates orchestrated the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Before the pandemic, Graff was regularly doing public speaking appearances to discuss the long-term impact of 9/11: he tells me he rarely made it through a talk or Q&A without someone asking him whether the events really happened as documented. 

“Not all of them are full-blown 9/11 truthers,” he explains. “For many of them, it’s something they heard or something someone told them at one point or something they read on the internet. And they’ll ask, ‘Is there any truth to the idea that the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition?’ Or, ‘I’ve always believed that the government actually did shoot down United Airlines Flight 93 and they’ve covered it up.’”

Graff believes most modern internet-driven conspiracy theories have used 9/11 theories as a blueprint. “There’s this through-line from 9/11 right up to Covid-19 vaccine misinformation today: this idea of ‘do your own research’. This idea of sitting at home with a computer and googling your way through YouTube and bulletin boards, that you can figure out more than every government scientist and engineer who has ever looked at this problem before.

“There’s an enormous amount of overlap both in tactics and literal people. You can trace 9/11 conspiracy theories through to anti-vaxxers and to QAnon. Lumped together, they’re sort of the internet’s main conspiracy theory movements. And unfortunately, what started as a fringe movement has now metastasised into a literal core policy platform of the Republican Party.” 

*** 

Much of the discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories today comes from the people who really believe in them. But another significant portion are people sharing memes and jokes about 9/11, ironically posting as though they were 9/11 truthers themselves. 

Don Caldwell is the editor-in-chief at Know Your Meme, a digital catalogue of internet memes and “viral phenomena” that has been the gold standard for explaining the history of popular images and debunking conspiracy theories since 2007. He believes the popularity of 9/11 memes is rooted in the internet’s love of dark humour.  

“Dark humour is the bread and butter of meme culture,” he tells me, adding that almost “any kind of tragedy” will now be mined for black comedy. He explains that many 9/11 memes are “often used to mock conspiracy theorists rather than support them”.

He cites two particularly widespread phrases: “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” and “Bush did 9/11”. The former was popularised by Loose Change, the latter rooted in the initially leftist conspiracy theory that 9/11 was carried out by the Bush administration. Such memes “set the stage for how something like that can be approached online”, he says.

“It’s become one of those edgy jokes that has the air of being edgy and off-limits in terms of the content, but it’s not. People know they can get away with it. At least in certain circles, like on Twitter,” he says, “you’re probably not going to get cancelled for a September 11th joke. So it’s edgy, but it’s also safe.” 

Caldwell believes that dark humour also had a role in fuelling disinformation, with stories like the 9/11 Tourist Guy. “That was the prototypical digitally altered image; Photoshop meme for a tragic event,” he says. “It set a precedent for people: OK, this is something in our toolbox now. If there’s an event and we want to play a trick or do a prank, we can and it’s not too difficult.” 

For Caldwell, this often stems from bored people playing a kind of game. “There’s this nihilistic, almost mischievous attitude of a trickster getting behind the scenes and doing things just for the hell of it. Not even for their own personal gain, just for other people’s and their own amusement. Just to feel like they’re doing things that are having an impact on the real world in a chaotic way.

“It’s gotten more difficult over the years, but there are some communities online that are still easy to trick.” 

*** 

One of the greatest legacies of 9/11’s digital footprint is how modern conspiracy theories now interfere with people’s lives, becoming not just a private conviction, but an entire way of life for many believers.  

“9/11 made this crossover from fringe conspiracy theory to lifestyle choice,” Graff explains, “where there are conventions of people coming together to talk about 9/11 conspiracy theories.” 

Today, this is mirrored by movements like QAnon believers and anti-vaxxers: for these theorists, these aren’t just beliefs but an identity. “It is the moment where we see conspiracy theories morph into a lifestyle and an ideology,” he says. 

“But more broadly, it’s a real warning that here we are, 20 years later, and a not insignificant portion of the population still ascribes to the 9/11 conspiracies. This represents, in hindsight, a turning point amid the broader collapse of public faith and institutions.” 

This is where both Knight and Graff believe the greatest challenge of 9/11 conspiracy theories lies: the erosion of trust in experts and disbelief in fundamental truths. “Distrust of experts and scepticism of authorities is justified, but, with 9/11, it seemed a more intense version of the cult of the amateur expert,” Knight says. “More and more people distrusted not just the official government version of events, but distrusted scientists and academic researchers and, therefore, they turned to the idea that they needed to – as the phrase goes – ‘do your own research’.” The result, he says, “is deeply troubling for a democratic society”.

As conspiracy theories continue to thrive online, serious questions arise about conspiratorial thinking’s role in the future of politics. “It is a warning of just how long we might be struggling with QAnon and other conspiracy theories like it,” Graff says. “And that’s a very different political problem for us to wrestle with.”