Skip to content
How 9/11 influenced the way conspiracy theories spread today

There are things so hard to admit that it may just seem easier to believe they didn’t happen: that a man could shoot the president in the head, that human beings could stand on the moon, that a seemingly ordinary man could walk into a school and kill the children inside. And, throughout history, many people have simply chosen not to believe these unfathomable events, telling each other stories that help make sense of the world, albeit more sinister.

So when the first plane, and then another, collided with the Twin Towers 20 years ago in lower Manhattan, it opened up a wound so unfathomable in his horror that it seemed necessary to tell a new story. type of story – a story that helped make sense of the tragedy, even if it distorted it. The conspiracy theories began almost as soon as the attacks were over and have remained with us to this day.

The theories themselves are so old-fashioned that they have progressed to memes: The common refrain that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”, once a seriously communicated part of conspiracy lore, is now become so worn out that it is almost meaningless. But there are many others, who tend to suggest that the United States could have intervened but decided not to, or that it in fact orchestrated the attacks itself.

At the same time, however, they borrowed from tropes and ideas that had existed for centuries and continued to prove popular in the decades that followed. For the most part, the 9/11 conspiracy theories are the same as those that came before and those that followed, with names swapped.

Perhaps the most distinct facet of the 9/11 conspiracy theories is how they were pushed through formats that are now familiar in everything from advertising to the arts. In 2005, as the first viral internet we know today made its mark – it was the year of Pepe the Frog’s first cartoon, the debut of “Chuck Norris Made” and the “Million Dollar Homepage” – a video known as Small change, a documentary that presented the central ideas of the 9/11 conspiracy theory in a way that quickly sent it to the internet.

Korey Rowe, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who directed the film with his friend Dylan Avery after returning from those confused and disillusioned wars, drew a straight line from the film to the various conspiracy theories that surround us today. ‘hui.

“Look where it happened: you have people storming the Capitol because they think the election was a fraud. There are people who don’t get vaccinated and die in hospitals, ”he told The Associated Press. “We’ve gotten to the point where information is actually killing people. “

One of the legacies of September 11 was to give importance to the idea of ​​the “false flag” attack


It can be easy to blame the internet. Experts are divided on whether technology has really made people more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories.

“The 9/11 conspiracy theories existed and the Internet existed,” says Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami and author of books on conspiracy theories. “But it was not the case that conspiracy theories could not develop before the Internet; it’s just completely wrong, and it reflects a really rosy take on the story.

“We’ve had several red scares in this country, Freemasonry escapes, Illuminati panics, overwhelming and drowned witches – all before the internet.

“A month after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, 55% of Americans believed the assassination was the result of a conspiracy rather than a sniper. That number rose to 80 percent in the 1970s and stayed that way for three decades; we haven’t seen 80% numbers on anything in the internet age. “

The view that the Internet is to blame for promoting or discouraging conspiracy theorists views the problem from the wrong angle, says Uscinski; people are not just “pristine walking lemmings” who can change their minds with any information they come across, whether it is from the internet or the print shop. Instead, the belief in conspiracy theory is a world view and interpretation of the world like any other.

“There is no evidence that people believe in conspiracy theories more now than they did in the past. We can only see it more.

Perhaps one of the most powerful legacies of 9/11 conspiracy theories is the establishment of a career that has continued to thrive: the professional conspiracy. And maybe no one embodied that more than Alex Jones.

Alex Jones feeds disbelief and accusations surrounding great tragedies


Jones was already a relatively successful radio host by the time of 9/11, and some of that success was built using the same playbook he would use after the attacks. Prior to 2001, he had focused on other traumatic events and claimed to know the truth about them – the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, for example, and the siege of Waco that had occurred two times. years before and had helped inspire him. While the end of the 1990s is sometimes described as a pre-existing period of social harmony and reliable information that was shattered by 9/11, these events and the response they provided show that the foundations were already there.

And while 9/11 helped establish the Alex Jones brand as it exists today, it was only one step on its road to underground domination. He applied the same format of disbelief and accusations that media history is a hoax to everything from school shootings to the Capitol riot.

He was able to do this because one of the legacies of 9/11 was to give importance to the idea of ​​the “false flag” attack, a theory that an organization or country is carrying out an operation under the false flag. another’s banner. Although this idea has been around for centuries – its name derives from the very real flag that flew on Navy ships – it became increasingly popular after 2001.

“This is a way of explaining what the motivations of, say, George W Bush were – as long as you think the president and some aspect of the military industrial complex would be interested in authorizing or organizing an attack on the ground. American – because it creates an enemy that you can go and fight for whatever nefarious goal you have, ”says Mark Fenster, University of Florida law professor and author of the seminal book Conspiracy theories. “And that just became a trope that explains it all now.”

And so, the Sandy Hook killings don’t become the horrific massacre of kindergarten students by a teenage boy, but rather a bogus operation whereby Barack Obama could impose tougher gun control laws. The Jan.6 Capitol riot was not an insurgency against Congress by the far right, but the intentional creation of chaos and violent chaos to be used against conservatives.

20 years of conflict and terror since September 11

Some of today’s conspiracy theories have become much more involved than those that arose after 9/11, with their followers behaving more like those interested in myths or religious texts than in academic studies. Those who believe in QAnon, for example, collect their beliefs primarily through the almost sacred texts that are displayed by the mysterious “Q”, not by endlessly replaying videos and conducting experiments to understand whether the official story has any significance. scientific sense, like those who believe in the 9/11 conspiracies.

Others today are imbued with a certain type of irony, which seems to have originated from the Internet. The accusations that Beyoncé is a member of the Illuminati seem both serious and kind of a joke; the slogan “Epstein didn’t kill himself” both emerges from a sincere belief and has become a meme enough that it can be slapped on beers and fancy Christmas sweaters.

At the same time, these conspiracy theories have deadly consequences. Covid and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories – often borrowing from those same health-related fears that have spread for centuries – continue to prove popular both online and in person.

Every era has its truths, its lies and its conspiracy theories. As much as the truth about 9/11 defined these early years of the 21st century, so much the conspiracy theories that surround them have helped color the lies the world told itself over the past 20 years.

The Independent Gt