A Bestiary of the 9/11 Truth Movement: Notes from the Front Line
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.