Fake News for the Week Ending September 10, 2021: 9/11 Anniversary Edition

Twenty years ago this week, on the morning of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked two passenger jetliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, precipitating their total collapse. Another hijacked airliner was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth hijacked aircraft, believed to have the Capitol Building as its target, crashed into an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when passengers tried to take control of the plane from the hijackers. The attacks resulted in 2,977 deaths and more than 25,000 injuries and changed the world as we know it.

In today’s instant-media environment it’s difficult to comprehend how the news unfolded that day. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube didn’t exist yet, nor did live streaming. Text messaging was in its infancy in the U.S. and not everyone carried a mobile phone in their pocket. Online journalism, as we now know it, hadn’t yet developed. Most Americans got their news from the three major broadcast networks, with the 24-hour cable news networks being much less important then than they are today. While some news was delivered over what we then called the World Wide Web, daily newspapers were still read by a majority of the public.

In this more traditional media environment, fake news found it more difficult to take hold. The major news organizations did a good job reporting the facts and holding off on the inevitable rumors that spread during the initial chaos. I was flipping back and forth through the channels and constantly refreshing the existing online news sources (including, interestingly, the Drudge Report) that day and saw the occasional panicked report of additional explosions in New York and Washington pop in the feed, only to be yanked back as sources were checked. There were fears of additional hijacked aircraft, but nothing substantiated. There was much speculation as to the fate of the fourth flight until reporting of its eventual crash trickled in later in the day. Overall, however, the reporting (even on Fox News) was sober and responsible.

It was after September 11th that the conspiracy theories started to rise. Certain panicked members of the public, not versed in how skyscrapers are engineered and constructed, couldn’t grasp how the Twin Towers could collapse from a simple (albeit powerful and horrific) airplane collision and started concocting theories on how there must have been other explosives and agents involved. Even though the source of the attacks (the al-Qaeda terrorist group, masterminded by the notorious Osama bin Laden) was quickly revealed, many people — inspired by misinformation gleefully spread by warhawks in the Bush administration — put the blame on Saddam Hussein, the resident evil dictator of Iraq. Some of the more extreme 9/11 “truthers” insisted that the attacks were actually a “false flag” operation pulled off by the U.S. government itself, designed to push the country into a Middle Eastern war.

The various 9/11-related conspiracy theories, all thoroughly debunked, include the following:

  • There was a considerable amount of insider trading in airline stocks before 9/11 that indicates a foreknowledge of the attacks by insiders
  • Israeli secret service agents had foreknowledge of the attacks, indicating possible involvement by the government of Israel
  • The Saudi Arabian royal family provided support for the hijackers and this support was covered up by the Bush administration
  • NORAD issued a stand-down order — or, in some variations, deliberately delayed the scrambling of fighter jets — so the hijacked planes could reach their targets without interference
  • The Pentagon was hit by a missile launched by government agents, not American Airlines Flight 77
  • United Airline Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was actually shot down by a U.S. fighter jet
  • The collapse of the Twin Towers was actually due to a controlled demolition caused by explosives planted in advance
  • There were no passenger planes at all involved in the attacks; footage of the crashes were computer-generated and the crashes were the result of missiles or military planes flown into the Twin Towers
  • The attacks were a “false flag” operation by factions in the U.S. government (or, in some versions, the U.S. and British governments) to draw the U.S. into a war in the Middle East, especially against the otherwise-uninvolved country of Iraq
  • The attacks were initiated by a “New World Order” of banking, corporate, globalization, and military interests for the purpose of creating a new global government

These conspiracy theories spread slowly, at least compared to the way similar conspiracies spread today. There was no social media to amplify and expedite the rumors and conspiracies; instead they had to spread the old fashioned way, by word of mouth.

Slowly but surely, however, the conspiracy theories did spread — and continued to spread over the years. Not surprisingly, there was a partisan nature to these conspiracy theories then, although that divide was opposite to the one behind the COVID- and election-related conspiracies that are rampant today.

According to a July 2006 survey by the Ohio University Scripps Journalism School, 52% of Democrats (and just 18% of Republicans) thought it was likely that people in the federal government either assisted in or took no action to stop the 9/11 attacks, because these official wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East. By 2009 (in a survey by Public Policy Polling) those numbers had fallen to 25% for Democrats and 6% for Republicans. In the most recent poll, conducted in 2016 by The Economist, the partisan divide in the 9/11 truther movement had mostly evaporated (even though the overall numbers had risen), with 28% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans believing that the U.S. government had helped plan the 9/11 attacks.

Twenty years removed, the fact that almost a quarter of all Americans believe, to some degree, in a debunked conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks is disturbing yet not surprising. The 9/11 truther movement predated yet eventually led to the widespread acceptance of the anti-vax conspiracy theory, the QAnon cult, and the spread of former president Donald Trump’s Big Lie about fraud in the 2020 election. We have become a nation of conspiracists and consumers of fake news — and craven politicians have embraced and fueled that trend for their own personal benefit.

The conspiracy society did not start with the 9/11 attacks but that event was a watershed in how otherwise normal people deal with circumstances well beyond their understanding and control. Thanks to the advent of social media and the explosion of 24/7 news and deliberately provocative talk radio, conspiracy stories, rumors, and disinformation spread almost instantaneously. The QAnon conspiracy, as an example, did not exist five years ago yet today is embraced by more than one out of five Americans — and 62% of Republicans.

What have we learned from the 9/11 attacks about fake news, conspiracy theories, and disinformation? We know that a certain segment of the population is prone to believe otherwise-unbelievable conspiracy theories about events that seem beyond their comprehension — especially if those theories indict those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Conspiracy theories and fake news appear to spread as fast as the available media allow. And, despite volumes of facts and evidence to the contrary, a certain percentage of people continue to believe in those conspiracy theories to which they’ve committed. Belief in conspiracy theories and fake news may simply be human nature, especially when those theories are big enough.

There will always be a certain segment of the population that believes that the 9/11 attacks were part of a government conspiracy, just as there will always be people who believe that the moon landing was faked and JFK was assassinated by the CIA. It is reasonable to presume, then, that some subset of the American populace will continue to believe in the Big Lie that ex-president Trump had the election stolen from him, that the deep state elite traffic in stolen children and feast on their blood, that the COVID-19 coronavirus was engineered by the unholy alliance of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates, and that the COVID vaccine contains tiny microchips to track the activities of U.S. citizens. This can alarm and horrify us but it shouldn’t surprise us. Some people, it seems, believe what they want to believe, all facts be damned.

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