9/11 and after: How a viral video bent reality

A conspiracy film energised the “9/11 truther” movement. It also supplied the template for the current age of disinformation.

The year is 2005. You open Internet Explorer, surf over to Yahoo Mail and spot an unread email from a friend.

“You have to watch this,” the email says.

The link takes you to a website where a video starts to load. It’s an hour long, and it takes a few minutes to finish buffering. Eventually, a title card fades to a shot of the Statue of Liberty, with the twin towers hovering behind it.

This, to a first approximation, is how I encountered Loose Change, the viral documentary film that popularised the September 11 “truther” movement and became a rallying cry for Americans who believed that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an inside job, perpetrated by the US government against its own citizens.

I was not a particularly persuadable Loose Change viewer — too young, too self-absorbed, more interested in using my computer to play video games than chase down conspiracy theories. But millions of Americans were seduced. After watching it, they disappeared down rabbit holes and emerged days or weeks later as, if not full-fledged 9/11 truthers, at least passionate sceptics.

They had opinions about obscure topics like nano-thermites and controlled demolition, and they could recite the melting temperatures of various construction materials. Some believed the government was actively involved; others merely thought Bush administration officials knew about the attacks in advance and allowed them to happen.

Today, the September 11 truther movement is often mocked or reduced to a sad historical footnote. It’s easy to forget how successful it was. More than 100 million people watched Loose Change, by its director’s estimate, making it one of the most popular independent documentaries of all time. And while conspiracy theory videos now routinely go viral, Loose Change was an early example of the internet’s ability to accelerate their spread.

I recently went back and watched several versions of Loose Change. (There are at least five English-language versions in total.) I also spoke to Korey Rowe and Jason Bermas, a producer and editor on the film, along with several experts on the 9/11 truther movement. (The film’s director, Dylan Avery, declined my interview request after concluding that I was writing a “clickbait article that blames a movie that came out 15 years ago for everything wrong with the internet today.”)

I was curious how the film holds up. But I also wanted to know whether revisiting Loose Change on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks could reveal anything about the trajectory of more recent conspiracy theories, or suggest how today’s popular delusions — QAnon, Covid denialism, election rigging fears — might be deflated or redirected.

What I found, in short, was that 16 years after its release, Loose Change is still bizarrely relevant. Its DNA is all over the internet — from TikTok videos about child sex trafficking to Facebook threads about Covid-19 miracle cures — and many of its false claims still get a surprising amount of airtime. (Just last month, director Spike Lee drew criticism for indulging September 11 conspiracy theories in a new HBO documentary series.) The film’s message that people could discover the truth about the attacks for themselves also became a core tactic for groups like QAnon and the anti-vaccine crowd, which urge their followers to ignore the experts and “do their own research” online.

The first edition of Loose Change — now viewable only at a few hard-to-find YouTube links — is, to my eye, the most compelling on-ramp. Unlike later cuts, which had production help from the Infowars founder Alex Jones and featured special effects and professional graphics, the first edition was made on a shoestring budget by Avery and Rowe, childhood best friends living in a small town in upstate New York. Avery, who initially set out to write a fictional screenplay about a group of friends who discover the truth about September 11, ended up turning it into a documentary while Rowe, who served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent him notes and suggestions.

The movie, while amateurish by Hollywood standards, is certainly watchable. Its aesthetic style is what you might call YouTube vérité — a strung-together compilation of grainy news footage set to an eerie instrumental soundtrack, with Avery narrating.

And while it drags in spots — were any sceptics converted, I wondered, by knowing the precise shape of the bezels on a Boeing 757’s diffuser case? — it makes its case cleanly, and trusts that its audience will follow along.

Unlike other political documentaries of its day, like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Loose Change is not primarily meant as entertainment. It feels less like a conspiracist’s rant than an edgy PowerPoint presentation that calmly guides viewers through the evidence, using innuendo and leading questions to provoke their imaginations. Like: What was under the mysterious blue tarp carried out of the Pentagon? Were the phone calls from passengers aboard the hijacked planes faked using voice-morphing technology? If jet fuel didn’t bring down the World Trade Center, then what did?

Of course, most of the film’s claims are nonsense, and the mysteries it describes generally have benign explanations. (The film spawned a cottage industry of debunker blogs, one of which compiled a list of 81 factual errors and 345 unsupported allegations in the film, and no credible study has found any evidence for its central argument that the US government was behind, or knew about, the attacks.)

But it’s a well-crafted piece of conspiracy agitprop, in part because of how restrained it feels by today’s standards. A QAnon video will tell you exactly who the Satan-worshipping paedophiles are, and what should be done to stop them. Loose Change merely asks: Well, how do you know Osama bin Laden’s confession tape wasn’t made by a body double?

Bermas, who came on to help with the film’s second edition, told me that Loose Change drew attention because it was better produced than other videos in its genre, and because it came out several years into the Iraq War, at a time when trust in many institutions was declining and many Democrats (and some Republicans) were rightly concerned about government cover-ups and misdirection.

“There was a large sentiment in this country that people felt they were being lied to,” Bermas said.

New technology helped, too. Unlike preinternet conspiracy theories, which had to be passed on through books and pamphlets, Loose Change was available free online. Fans uploaded it to sites like Google Video, the now-defunct YouTube competitor, where it was viewed millions of times and got translated into multiple languages.

The Loose Change team also hit on other creative distribution strategies, selling DVDs in multi-packs, and encouraging fans to leave copies behind in laundromats, post offices, hotel lobbies and other public places where strangers might pick them up. When fans wanted to spread the film on their own, they allowed it, even if it meant uploading it to a torrent file-sharing service or passing around pirated discs.

“We didn’t care,” Bermas said. “We wanted the message to get out, period.”

Loose Change never made its creators rich, but the film became a cultural touchstone and attracted a number of high-profile fans. Rosie O’Donnell, then a host of The View, raised doubts about the official September 11 narrative, and Joy Reid, now an MSNBC host, praised the film on her personal blog. (O’Donnell did not respond to a request for comment, and Reid has said that her blog was hacked.) Charlie Sheen expressed interest in narrating a version of the film, Rowe said, which would have been financed by Mark Cuban, the Shark Tank billionaire, although the deal never materialised. (In an email, Cuban said that he thought the film was “ridiculous” and that the talks never went beyond initial discussions.)

Jonathan Kay, a Canadian journalist who wrote a book about September 11 truthers, told me that the success of Loose Change turned conspiracy theorising from a passive hobby into a social activity, and encouraged a new generation of conspiracists to try their hand at media-making.

“It was part of an era where anyone with a fringe theory suddenly popped their head up and said, ‘Wait a second — with a couple thousand dollars or even less, I can make my mark on the world,'” Kay said.

But a more urgent lesson to take from Loose Change is that conspiracy theories tend to flourish in low-trust environments, during periods of change and confusion. The September 11 attacks were traumatic for millions of Americans, and when neither the government nor the media had satisfactory answers to their questions, some of them found comfort in a low-budget documentary that was filled with inaccuracies, but at least tried to fill in the gaps.

Some Loose Change supporters, wary of the social and political stigma now attached to the 9/11 truther movement, have publicly changed their minds. But others simply turned to other topics. Bermas, for example, now has a YouTube channel on which he discusses various conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and other current events.

Kay said that one of his major takeaways from studying the September 11 truther movement was that conspiracy theories generally don’t go away, no matter how forcefully they’re debunked or fact-checked.

He compared it to a kind of sedimentary rock — layers building upon other layers, each old theory holding up the new ones. QAnon drew on Pizzagate, which drew on the grassy knoll and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Each layer emerges under different social and political conditions, but it all eventually forms the bedrock of a quest for hidden truth.

If that’s true, we can expect that the great destabilising forces of our time — climate change, economic inequality, the aftershocks of the pandemic — will create new conspiracy theories, without washing away the old ones. Twenty years from now, Americans may still be squinting at their screens, trying to figure out what really happened on September 11, even as their research leads them into new kinds of darkness.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Kevin Roose

Source: Read Full Article