Another 9/11 Legacy? The Spread of Conspiracy Theories OnlineRoundup
tags: conspiracy theories, 9/11, media history, Internet Culture
Jeff Melnick teaches American studies at UMass Boston and is the author of a number of books, including Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South.
It’s been 20 years since the attacks on the twin towers, the Pentagon and the crash of United 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pa., and in some ways the most important legacy of 9/11 can be boiled down to one maddening question: What is the truth?
In our pandemic moment, in the aftermath of a presidential administration that weaponized accusations of “fake news” against its political enemies while promoting egregious falsehoods, this is no small matter. A recent report in The Washington Post underscores how concentrated and deadly the dissemination of false information has become: A vast amount of anti-vaccination content is generated by just 111 (out of billions of) Facebook accounts.
Our toxic media ecosystem — what Jacob Silverman earlier this year called the “right-wing conspiracy singularity”— has its roots in the immediate chaotic times after 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. Then, technological changes combined with political ones to create a media landscape full of potential for democratic impulses and marbled with toxic misinformation.
The latter has overrun the former as a result of the U.S. government’s unwillingness to regulate the headlong rush of media consolidation. The vertical integration of social media has made it easier for political actors to fundraise, gain recognition and circulate the kind of simple (and often patently false) information that first really flourished online after the attacks of Sept. 11.
Telecommunications at the turn of the millennium looked quite different from our current scenario: In the United States, the majority of phones were still landlines (and would not be surpassed by cellphones until 2004) and a majority of Internet connections were slow with unstable dial-up (also not eclipsed by broadband until 2004).
In the minutes, hours and days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the desperate search for news meant that a huge number of Americans turned to very few national television and radio news sources and to daily newspapers. Radio was especially centralized: In the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the ownership of radio stations, a headlong rush to consolidation ensued — from 1996 to 2002, Clear Channel, the broadcasting giant now known as iHeart Media, grew from 40 to 1240 stations.
But on 9/11 the media giants could not keep up. The reality was, as Robert Andrews argued in an influential 2006 article, “The Birth of the Blog,” that “phone networks and big news sites struggled to cope with heavy traffic” and could not always rise to the challenge. The thirst for information was often quenched by the “many survivors and spectators” who “turned to online journals to share feelings, get information or detail their whereabouts. It was raw, emotional and new — and many commentators now remember it as a key moment in the birth of the blog.”