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Conspiracy theories on the Internet and on the loose

By Steve Clarke - posted Thursday, 7 June 2007


In the days before the Internet (remember back then?) a jobbing conspiracy theorist would release the occasional book, appear in this or that public forum and maybe get a segment on a television documentary or two. All of this could be expected to generate a reasonable amount of publicity. But if our conspiracy theorist was after mass publicity and a global audience then things were going to be tough. The best bet would be to suck up to Oliver Stone, in the hope of persuading him to make a Hollywood blockbuster based on their favoured conspiracy theory.

It’s a new era for conspiracy theorists. Oliver Stone can’t be counted on. His film World Trade Center (2006) actually takes the official line that the Twin Towers collapsed as a result of fire damage caused by the impact of the aircraft which were flown into them. Fortunately for conspiracy theorists, though, they no longer need to rely on Olly. They can disseminate their views directly via the Internet and reach an audience of billions.

There are many conspiracy theorists taking advantage of the opportunities that cyberspace has to offer (see www.abovetopsecret.com for a taste of most of these). The group that have made the biggest Internet splash are 9-11 conspiracy theorists, who have variously suggested, that the World Trade Center was actually destroyed by a controlled demolition, by “mini-nukes” and by energy rays beamed from outer space.

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There are also conspiracy theories about Flight UA 93 (it was shot down, it didn’t crash) and about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon (it was actually a missile). And no doubt there are other 9-11 theories out there. I say suggested, because a lot of the 9-11 conspiracy theorists are strangely coy about committing to their theories. The theories are typically put forward as possibilities worthy of further exploration, rather than advanced as the correct explanation of the events in question.

The very popular Internet documentary Loose Change - which has been viewed by millions - is a kind of 9-11 conspiracy theories greatest hits, in which the controlled demolition theory, the missile into the Pentagon theory and the theory that UA 93 didn’t crash are all given an airing. The 2nd edition of Loose Change can be downloaded for free. A 3rd edition is in the pipeline and should be available online through pay-per-view.

The Internet has helped conspiracy theorists publicise their ideas, but the Internet can be an unforgiving place for the vulnerable conspiracy theorist. Loose Change has prompted the creation of the amusingly titled rebuttal documentary (and associated blog) Screw Loose Change, in which a slew of factual errors, logical fallacies and rhetorical ploys in Loose Change are gleefully pointed out.

Screw Loose Change has, in turn, prompted the creation of the somewhat less amusingly titled blog Screw Screw Loose Change. Also noteworthy are the editors of Popular Mechanics who have debated Dylan Avery, the director of Loose Change, along with one of his researchers on Democracy Now!, and have released the book Debunking 9/11 Myths. Loose Change has been parodied as Unfastened Coins, a website devoted to exposing a spoof conspiracy about the sinking of the Titanic.

Most 9-11 conspiracy theorists are simply concerned to maximise their audience. However, there are 9-11 conspiracy theorists who are also after academic prestige. It might seem that this would be very hard to get as they would have to try to place papers outlining their theories in stuffy academic journals and academics have traditionally been very dismissive of conspiracy theorists. Fortunately for the academically inclined conspiracy theorist, the Internet has enabled a shortcut. 9-11 conspiracy theorists have created their own online academic journal, the Journal of 9/11 Studies.

Unfortunately for them, this has prompted the creation of a counter-conspiracy theory journal, the Journal of Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories.

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Not only do online conspiracy theorists have to be on the look out for anti-conspiracy theorists attempting to debunk their views, they also have to keep an eye out for other conspiracy theorists online. Conspiracy theorists can be a paranoid lot and are apt to suspect that rival conspiracy theorists are decoys, encouraged by the conspirators to try to mislead people and prevent them from finding out the truth.

Eric Hufschmid, another 9-11 conspiracy theorist, voices concern that a “… criminal network is promoting Loose Change because they consider it to be the least dangerous to them”. He also suggests that Dylan Avery and the other creators of Loose Change may be part of the same criminal network. He notes that Loose Change has received much more exposure than his own 9-11 conspiracy video Painful Deceptions and asks the question “Am I jealous?” Strangely an answer to the question is not provided.

Perhaps because 21st century conspiracy theorists are exposed to relentless criticism from all sides, online, they appear to be much more cautious than their offline predecessors.

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About the Author

Steve Clarke is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Canberra as well as a James Martin Research Fellow in the Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, Oxford University, UK.

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