A Bestiary of the 9/11 Truth Movement: Notes from the Front Line
Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller
Two social scientists describe their experience confronting the 9/11 Truth movement in the United Kingdom after they published a paper linking conspiracy theories with extremist ideology. They argue that the 9/11 Truth movement is composed of three groups and that each accepts the conspiracy meme for different reasons.
“I was fifty-five years old when I began to understand the world in my view. . . . I’m actually quite certain, and I don’t want to believe it . . . that the people we call the government murder us in order to start wars that make money for them.” 1
In his article “The Conspiracy Meme: Why Conspiracy Theories Appeal and Persist” (SI, January/February 2011), Ted Goetzel suggests conspiracy theorizing is a meme—a way of thinking that spreads, survives, or dies according to a process analogous to genetic (termed mimetic) selection. The conspiracy meme competes with others, such as the scientific meme or the fair debate meme, as a way of describing and making sense of the world.
Conspiracy theorizing is, according to Goetzel, a rhetorical meme that “transforms scientific controversies into human dramas. . . . It uses controversial facts and speculations to undermine scientific evidence.” It is a surprisingly resilient and successful meme, a growing body of scholarly literature suggests, because of a growing mistrust in “experts” and established sources of knowledge (Hardwig 1991); an ideological response to structural inequalities (Fenster 1999); and a natural human tendency to seek order in an ever more complex, confusing world (Popper  2006). Once implanted, it is incredibly difficult to shake.
Over the past year we have been watching and confronting one particular version of this meme: the 9/11 Truth movement. In August 2010, we released a paper about conspiracy theories, “The Power of Unreason.” Within hours, the online conspiricist community hit back. Our paper was featured, or mirrored, on literally thousands of websites, blogs, and discussion forums; appeared as a topic on conspiricist radio shows; was mentioned in a dozen YouTube videos; and attracted hundreds of pages of comments and critique from the 9/11 Truth movement.2
The crucial point is that “The Power of Unreason” was not actually about the 9/11 Truth movement. As a study of the role of conspiracy theories in extremist and terrorist groups, it mentions 9/11 Truth sparsely and incidentally. That the 9/11 Truth movement responded in such an aggressive manner prompted us to analyze the response itself as a means of understanding this broadly nonviolent movement that nonetheless represents a damaging cultural habit.
The response illustrated, and continues to illustrate, Goertzel’s conspiracy theory meme in action. First, the online conspiracy community wrapped the report around faulty preconceptions. The paper was misrepresented in an exaggerated, distorted, inaccurate way that was soon recycled and re-presented within the conspiricist community. The recommendation to teach critical thinking in schools became “pushing propaganda on our children.” The recommendation to introduce alternative information into conspiracist sites became a dark, Orwellian plot to end free speech. The key finding that terrorist organizations often use conspiracy theories as part of their propaganda became “Demos accuses the 9/11 Truth Movement as [sic] being terrorists.”3 Many of these comments came from people who freely confessed that they had not read our paper.
Quickly, the focus turned onto our organization, Demos, a non-government public education charity. The Greek letter theta, taking the place of the o in the Demos logo, became the eye of the Illuminati.4 As authors, we were roundly accused of being part of the conspiracy itself: at best unknowing, naive, and myopic writers; at worst disinformation specialists or government agents openly supporting state terrorism.5 This technique of folding any dissenters into an ever-growing conspiracy is precisely what Goertzel predicts: cascade logic. Here, it was a spontaneous, semi-concerted effort to discredit the report and its arguments.
According to various polls, belief in the 9/11 conspiracy is incredibly high. In the United Kingdom, only 56 percent of the population believes al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks; some smaller polling suggests that as many as one-third of Americans consider it “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that U.S. government officials either allowed or actually carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001.6 In fact, it is not quite as simple as that. Based on our encounters, we believe the 9/11 Truth movement is composed of different kinds of people who are involved in the movement for different reasons and derive different types of fulfillment and satisfaction from this engagement. This is a story of a dominant meme finding fertile ground in several psychological habitats.
We’ve observed groups from three of these habitats. The first can be called the “hardcore” group. Much of the noise of the 9/11 Truth movement is caused by a relatively small, tight-knit group of highly connected, highly motivated individuals. They are prodigious producers of information and theories who spot anomalies and technical inconsistencies. They are veterans of the John F. Kennedy assasination and Moon-landing-hoax theories, and so their worldview favors the “super-conspiracy,” linking conspiracies to a hidden overarching, sinister master plan (Cline 2007).
In our debates with them, hardcore 9/11 Truthers claim to be interested only in “facts”: the physical “fact” of the free fall speed of the Twin Towers, the collapse of World Trade Center (WTC) 7—which to them proves a demolition—or the “fact” that traces of super thermite have been identified in the Lower Manhattan dust by Steven Jones.
Their arguments, however, are not scientific at all, because the methods used are nonscientific: proponents decide on the answer and then search for corroborating evidence while ignoring the overwhelming peer-reviewed, independent research that suggests that, for example, WTC 7 collapsed in a manner consistent with severe damage from falling debris and fire (National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] 2008). This self-avowedly dispassionate search for truth is emotional.7 The hardcore group’s involvement in 9/11 Truth is monochrome and Manichean: it’s a “good/bad,” “black/white” struggle against an oppressive influence whose existence hardcore members believe they are on the cusp of proving.
The second layer could be called the “critically turned” group. It is often a source of surprise that many young students and political activists are part of the 9/11 Truth movement. Some are influenced heavily by that heady bundle of postmodern theory and the critical turn that Geoffrey Elton so memorably termed “the intellectual equivalent of crack” (Elton  2002). Their approach and language center on the dizzying ideas of relativism and subjective truth and the post-structural deconstruction they allow and demand (Sokal and Brickmont 1998).
But more than anything, the critically turned’s membership in 9/11 Truth arises from anger at the political order they will soon inherit. It is too closed. There is too much power in the hands of too few. Their sense of justice and idealism is rudely confronted by a world of state espionage, links between big business and government, and lies over weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). These are as significant as any specific theories about WTC 7 or the size of the hole in the Pentagon outer wall. Their interests often span to other forms of resistance against perceived oppression and injustice: support for Palestine, affiliation with the anti-war movement, and hatred of greedy bankers. It is this group that produces much of the cool, countercultural content of the movement. A recent YouTube video about Demos was set to the electronic dubstep track “Could This Be Real (Joker Remix).”8 Some of the most popular conspiricist films, such as Loose Change and Zeitgeist, make great use of atmospheric drumbeats and eye-catching graphics.
Finally there is a much larger, more diffuse group, which we term the illiterati. They are people for whom membership in 9/11 Truth is as much a social and recreational pursuit as an exercise in critical inquiry.9 Their involvement is predominantly through web 2.0 social networking. Often this user-generated commentary really acts as interactive entertainment masquerading as a public-spirited, free-thinking quest for the truth. They are the worst offenders for flouting the basic tenets of good journalism—accurate quotation, avoidance of misrepresentation, and fidelity of source—and their contributions, almost entirely devoid of genuine intent to find truth, are almost always nakedly and transparently propagandistic. For them, it is the thrill of the chase and participating in a largely online struggle that animates their involvement, not the end result.
Though the conspiracy theorizing meme is the same, its success within the 9/11 Truth movement depends on quite different characteristics depending on its adherent. These unlikely comrades in arms have joined to make a formidable movement. The hardcore group supplies much of the physical organization and structure: its members organize events, discussions, and marches; distribute leaflets; and edit the “peer reviewed” journals. The critically turned have done much to manufacture its broad appeal—giving it a countercultural street cred and, through the production of content and the skillful exploitation of virtual networks, exposure to millions. The illiterati form the group’s mass-membership backbone. They provide the thousands of comments and millions of YouTube hits on which the movement’s exaggerated claims of popularity and influence are founded. So can anything be learned from this?
The hardcore group claims to share at least the same epistemological rules—rationalism, empiricism, and a grounding of basic scholarly practice and conduct—as skeptics. Yet the emotionalized substrate of this conduct makes broad attempts at logical reasoning—such as pointing out the cascade logic suggested by Goetzel—insufficient. Any chance to believe conspirators exist is good enough for them. Any hanging anomalies or unanswered challenges of the official narrative will be taken as proof of the conspiracy. So the necessary response here is most painstaking: their claims must, as far as is possible, be rebuffed fact by fact, anomaly by anomaly, with the scientific tools they claim to be using.
The critically turned might not accept this approach, because conspiracy theories for them fit in with what they see happening in the world—it is part of a bigger story. The use of logical reasoning could help. Highlighting cascade logic might stick, as might emphasizing other tools of logic and rhetoric. For example, why would the American government, if it wanted to keep this secret, fly planes into the Twin Towers before bringing them down with a controlled demolition? Was flying fully fueled passenger jets into the Pentagon and the center of U.S. business not sufficient? Why did the U.S. government not plant WMDs in Iraq—a far easier and equally important subject?
The illiterati have not actually looked at much of the material, but it fits not only with their worldview but also with an explicit position to which they have committed socially and around which they have formed an identity. This makes ideas very difficult to dislodge (Riso et al. 2007). Neither facts nor logic are likely to do much here. We can only address the real structural inequalities that condition a milieu as fertile for such beliefs. This, of course, is a major endeavor. Some smaller changes may help too, such as more critical thinking in schools: a recent study by an independent organization in the United Kingdom found that 43 percent of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds base their trust in web content on how the site looks, while 32 percent of twelve- to fifteen-year-olds believe that Google search results are listed in order of accuracy.10
Memes must exist within a human ecology. Conspiracy theorizing is not only, or even predominantly, an intellectual process. It is “whole-person”: both emotional and social. That is why changing the dominant meme must be done in person: the hard graft of speaking, discussing, and arguing face-to-face. The 9/11 Truth movement has successfully done that. The skeptics must continue to do the same.
1. A direct quote from a very angry man at an event we attended (publicized by 9/11 Truthers as “Demos vs. 9/11 Truth”). He sat in the front row directly across from coauthor Carl Miller and yelled this fairly typical outburst into his face. (Available online at www.vimeo.com/16395101, approximately forty-six minutes and twenty seconds into the video clip.)
2. See, for example, www.infowars.com/government-think-tank-calls-for-infiltrating-conspiracy-websites and www.911truth.org/article.php?story=20100829144303310 (both accessed October 11, 2010).
3. See the Demos blog for a good overview of the response at www.demos.co.uk/blog/engaging-.
4. http://seeker401.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/demos-calls-for-governments-to-infiltrate-conspiracy-sites (accessed October 11, 2010).
5. http://kevboyle.blogspot.com/2010/10/demos-meets-911-truth.html (accessed October 11, 2010).
6. See www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/international_security_bt/535.php and Lev Grossman’s article “Why the Conspiracy Theories Won’t Go Away,” Time magazine in 2008 (www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1531304,00.html).
7. See, for instance, the “personal validation effect”: a cognitive bias of considering a piece of information to be correct if it has a personal significance. See B.R. Forer’s 1949 article “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A classroom Demonstration of Gullibility,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology (volume 44, pp. 118–21.)
9. See Cass Sunstein for a study of reputational cascades, in which people “profess belief in a conspiracy theory, or at least suppress their doubts, because they seek to curry favor.” Sunstein and Vermeule, University of Chicago Law and Economics Research Paper Series, Paper No. 387, p.12.
10a. UK children’s media literacy. 2009. Ofcom. London.
10b. Digital lifestyles: Young adults aged 16–24. 2009. Ofcom. London.
Cline, Austin. 2007. Flaws in reasoning and arguments: Subjective validation, seeing patterns and connections that aren’t really there. About.com (September 10).
Elton, Geoffrey R. (1991) 2002. Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fenster, Mark. 1999. Conspiracy theories: Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Goertzel, Ted. 2011. The conspiracy meme: Why conspiracy theories appeal and persist. Skeptical Inquirer 35(1) (January/February): 28–37.
Hardwig, John. 1991. The role of trust in knowledge. Journal of Philosophy 88(22).
National Institute of Standards and Technology. 2008. Final report on the collapse of World Trade Center building 7.
Popper, Karl. (1945) 2006. Conspiracy theory of society. In Tom Rockmore and Daniel Breazele, eds, Rights, Bodies and Recognition: New Essays on Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right, 13–16.
Riso, Lawrence P., et al. 2007. Cognitive Schemas and Core Beliefs in Psychological Problems: A Scientist–Practitioner Guide. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont. 1998. Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador.