9/11 conspiracy theories cast long shadow

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FILE – In this Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001 file photo, rescue workers continue their search as smoke rises from the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York. Twenty years on, the skepticism and suspicion first revealed by 9/11 conspiracy theories has metastasized, spread by the internet and nurtured by pundits and politicians like Donald Trump. One hoax after another has emerged, each more bizarre than the last: birtherism. Pizzagate. QAnon. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File)

MYSTERY WIRE (AP) — Korey Rowe served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned home to the U.S. in 2004 traumatized and disillusioned.

His experiences overseas and nagging questions about Sept. 11, 2001 convinced him America’s leaders were lying about what happened that day and the wars that followed.

The result was “Loose Change,” a 2005 documentary produced by Rowe and his childhood friend, Dylan Avery, that popularized the theory that the U.S. government was behind 9/11.

One of the first viral hits of the still-young internet, it encouraged millions to question what they were told.  

While the attacks united many Americans in grief and anger, “Loose Change” spoke to the disaffected.

Rowe doesn’t regret the film, and still questions the events of 9/11, but says he’s deeply troubled by what 9/11 conspiracy theories revealed about the corrosive nature of misinformation on the internet.

Twenty years on, the skepticism and suspicion first revealed by 9/11 conspiracy theories has metastasized, spread by the internet and nurtured by pundits and politicians like Donald Trump.

One hoax after another has emerged, each more bizarre than the last: birtherism. Pizzagate. QAnon.

“”You see the January 6th insurrection where people are lied to about a conspiracy theory by their elected officials, where they believe that information so intently that they would invade the U.S. Capitol building and kill people over the information that that was fed to them.

There were, of course, conspiracy theories before 9/11 happened – John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing, a supposed 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico.

And the country’s interest in fringe theories was on the rise before 9/11, exemplified by the 1990s show “The X-Files,” with its taglines of “The truth is out there” and “trust no one.” But it was 9/11 that heralded our current era of suspicion and disbelief and revealed the internet’s ability to catalyze conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories about the attack and its aftermath also gave early exposure to some of the same people pushing hoaxes and unfounded claims about COVID-19, vaccines and the 2020 election, including Alex Jones, the Trump-supporting publisher of InfoWars, who has accused the United States of plotting the attacks and says the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. Jones was a co-producer of the third edition of “Loose Change.”

Polls show belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories peaked soon after the attack, then subsided.

That’s not surprising, according to Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law school professor who studies the history of conspiracy theories. He says shocking, sudden events often spawn conspiracy theories as people collectively grapple with understanding them.

“There has long been a kind of ambient default level of conspiracy theory belief for people who are disaffected from the political system, Fenster says. “But the extent to which more people can have access to them and more people can see them and also people who are outside that circle can see them and reporters can have beats that are related to Qanon and conspiracy theories, that’s something that’s new.”

Conspiracy theorists once relied on books, pamphlets and late night television shows to espouse their beliefs. Now, they use message boards like Reddit, post videos on YouTube, and win over converts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

The first known 9/11 conspiracy theory originated only hours after the attack, when an American software engineer emailed a post to an internet forum questioning whether the destruction of the towers looked like a controlled demolition.

Twenty years on, a search on YouTube for content related to 9/11 turns up millions of hits.

Thousands of videos focus on conspiracy theories.

That is a lot, but the grandfather of modern conspiracy theories has been outpaced by the upstarts: A Google search of “9/11 conspiracy theory” turns up more than 8 million results, while a search for “COVID conspiracy theory” turns up more than three times that.

These days, Korey Rowe has distanced himself from the 9/11 conspiracy movement, instead focusing on his business as a videographer and filmmaker in upstate New York.

He says he still has questions about what happened on 9/11, but it’s no longer a big part of his life.

“The 9/11 truth movement to me,” he said “is a thing of the past.”

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