How 9/11 influenced the way conspiracy theories spread today

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There are some things so difficult to countenance that it can seem simply easier to believe they didn’t happen: that one man could put a bullet through the president’s skull, that human beings could stand on the moon, that a seemingly average man might walk into a school and kill the children inside. And, throughout history, many people have chosen simply not to believe those unfathomable events, telling themselves stories that help make the world make sense, albeit more sinister.

So when the first plane and then another collided with the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan in September 2001, it opened a wound so unfathomable in its horror that it seemed necessary to tell a new kind of story – one that helped make sense of the tragedy, even as it distorted it. The conspiracy theories began almost as soon as the attacks had finished, and they have stayed with us to this day.

The theories themselves are so well-worn that they have progressed all the way to memes: the common refrain that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”, once an earnestly communicated part of conspiracy lore, has now become so hackneyed that it is almost meaningless. But there are many others, which either tend to suggest that that the US could have intervened but decided not to, or that it actually orchestrated the attacks itself.

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

Perhaps the most distinct facet about the 9/11 conspiracy theories is the way they were pushed through formats that are familiar now in everything from advertising to the arts. In 2005, as the early viral internet we know today was finding its feet – it was the year of the first Pepe the Frog drawing, the beginnings of “Chuck Norris facts” and the “Million Dollar Homepage” – there appeared a video known as Loose Change, a documentary that presented the central ideas of the 9/11 conspiracy theory in a way that sent it swiftly across the internet.

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