Comment: One legacy of 9/11? How conspiracies spread online

The thirst for information after the attack and early social networks encouraged wild, unchallenged theories.

By Jeff Melnick / Special To The Washington Post

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 at once 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 1,240 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.”

While the web until this point was basically a one-way street, these blogs and the post-9/11 moment invigorated what was coming to be called “Web 2.0.” With its liberating promise of easily uploaded user-generated content, these blogs became a sort of wireless wire service for breaking news and opinion. Uploaded photos became shared widely (2001 was the first year the sale of digital cameras outpaced film cameras), via blogs but also through emails and posted audio recordings.

It all unfolded in anarchic, disorganized fashion because 2001’s Internet was a wild place. Professional web designers competed with do-it-yourself homepage makers and a huge amount of traffic about 9/11 was carried over email, through instant message and on emerging platforms like LiveJournal. GeoCities — bought by Yahoo in 1999 — was inundated with what we would now call memes: loads of simple and heartbreaking memorial pages, crying bald eagles, calls for prayer. This newly scalable passing of information had its democratizing functions — the news was often being passed horizontally instead of hierarchically — and played an important role as social glue, building bonds between people who otherwise might not have much in common, who might never have met in real life.

But it also had dangerous elements. Many online reactions reflected and reinforced racism. Simple and brutal Islamophobic Flash animations and computer games proliferated, as Abby Denton has described. “Wedge-driving rumors” spread online; for example false tales of “celebrating” or “dancing” Arabs.

The most important rumors, of course, had to do with the search for the “truth” of what happened on 9/11. At first scattered, challenges to the “official story” were everywhere; on political blogs and message boards, and later on VHS tapes, burned DVDs and eventually YouTube. Such content coalesced around a few basic, unfounded premises: that the attacks were an inside job, that United 93 was shot down by the U.S. military, that the Pentagon was hit by missiles or that the government knew the attacks were coming and through incompetence or malign motive did nothing to stop them.

It is not difficult to discredit the content of these conspiracy theories but it is also necessary to recognize their crucial social function. They revealed a startling level of distrust of the U.S. government and the American media establishment; something that grew even stronger in the wake of the attacks. And, many making such marginal claims about 9/11 carried social weight: a portion of it came from the hip-hop artists who advanced an allegorical repudiation of the keepers of the dominant narrative; notably those in power who tried to censor their records, shut down live performances and surveil them through such agencies as NYPD’s “Rap Unit.”

And in fact, the unruly media anarchy of the immediate post-9/11 juncture was treated by government and commercial media forces, at least implicitly, as a dangerous hazard. Tech and communication companies, from AT&T on down came quickly to recognize the user data was their most valuable commodity, and taking a cue from the U.S. government’s information requests, began to broaden and deepen their surveillance practices. Acting in compliance with government requests for information created a cozy situation for these corporations which then, unmolested by the U.S. government, converted user information into remarkably profitable algorithms.

From the illegal spying program of the National Security Agency to the more seemingly anodyne harvesting of the traffic on Internet service providers, enormous bodies of data were created — and then operationalized — by governments and corporations, working hand-in-glove to clamp down on truly free expression.

Soon, technology and social media companies were concentrating their overall power — mostly through acquisition (Yahoo buying GeoCities, Google buying blogger.com, Facebook (which didn’t even exist until 2004) buying just about everything else under the sun, from Instagram to WhatsApp). This led to a narrowing of who controlled the most powerful messaging platforms and the creation of what is commonly referred to as “filter bubbles.” The new menu of communication options on offer seemed to promise more choice, but actually represented some serious limiting of our ability to reach each other.

Among other problems, social media consolidation happened in a context where people’s privacy was being trampled in the name of national security, often taking the shape of collaboration between the state and private companies providing Internet services and collecting surveillance data: deregulation and coordination were closely linked.

Without meaningful government regulation of how the social media companies used our personal information, evermore powerful algorithms were built that have come to service minority interest groups and disinformation campaigns; thus leading critics like Siva Vaidyanathan to ring alarms about the relationship of social media growth and emerging authoritarianism. As Virginia Heffernan explains, it took until 2017 for Facebook to admit any complicity: the “company admitted it had received payments for … a wide range of phony ads designed to fan the flames of American racism, anti-LGBT sentiment, and fervor for guns.”

The U.S. government has only recently recognized the outsized power of Facebook and other “Big Tech” companies to shape “the truth,” a social problem only made starker during the pandemic. It now seems tragically apt that social media platforms have used the analogy of virality to describe the successful spread and reach of information.

Twenty years after the initial burst of “9/11 truth,” the Internet is a more constrained place, where so many of us struggle to build community as coding reproduces systemic racism in digital form and business strategies enable anti-vaccination and anti-mask propaganda to proliferate on a mass scale. We don’t know what the pandemic’s death toll would have been without the scaled-up and concentrated messaging platformed by Facebook, but it surely would not have surpassed 9/11’s carnage on so many days.

Jeff Melnick teaches American studies at University of Massachusetts-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.”

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