20 years after 9/11: conspiracy theories still alive and related to Covid-19
As the world remembers the victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, conspiracy theories about what "really" happened are resurfacing and continue to roam the Internet twenty years after the event, although most have been disproven and none confirmed by experts.
As in the weeks prior, this week Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in information space in the past two weeks:
1. Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While the international community expressed solidarity with the victims of the attack, disinformation actors were using the event to spread various conspiracy theories.
2. These range from more "moderate" theories, claiming, for example, that U.S. intelligence agencies deliberately failed to act to prevent the attacks, to completely fabricated stories with little to no factual basis, claiming that there have never been any hijacked planes, and the WTC has collapsed as a result of the deliberate detonation.
3. The disinformation actors in Slovakia sought to exploit the existing doubts about the official version of the 9/11 events to undermine the authenticity of the Covid-19 pandemic. In general, they operate on the premise that “since they faked 9/11, they also faked the pandemic.”
4. Through constantly reinforcing 9/11 conspiracy theories, the disinformation actors aim to nurture conspiratorial thinking in the population that is then more inclined to refute any "official" version of events provided by public institutions, whether regarding the 9/11 events or the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
From 9/11 to the Covid 19 pandemic: how the Slovak disinformation actors nurture the public's conspiratorial thinking
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. While the international community expressed its solidarity with the victims of the attack, disinformation actors were using the event to spread various conspiracy theories.
Around the anniversary, the Slovak disinformation actors annually spread a variety of 9/11 conspiracy theories. These range from more "moderate" theories, claiming, for example, that U.S. intelligence agencies deliberately failed to act to prevent the attacks, to completely fabricated stories with little factual basis, claiming that there have never been any hijacked planes and that any video footage of them was digitally manipulated.
This year was no different, and with the 20th anniversary upon us, the information space was once again flooded with a barrage of conspiracy theories and disinformation narratives. A closer look at the disinformation actors shows how these conspiracy theories are being used to undermine the trust in public institutions and even doubt the authenticity of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Remote-controlled detonation and the “mysterious” collapse of Building 7
Probably one the most famous theories holds that the collapse of the World Trade Centre was caused by a deliberate remote-controlled detonation. The authors of these theories claim that it is impossible that the steel structure of the building could not withstand the fire caused by the plane crash, and argue that jet fuel does not burn at temperatures high enough to melt steel.
Realistically, however, there is no evidence to support this theory. No traces of explosives were found at the site. Despite the lack of evidence, this conspiracy theory was widely disseminated by several local disinformation outlets, including InfoVojna and Zem a Vek.
The disinformation outlets also repeatedly point out the "mystery of the collapse of the third WTC tower," known as Building 7 which collapsed a few hours after the terrorist attack and which they see as bulletproof evidence confirming the deliberate detonation theory.
According to the disinformation media, it is suspicious that the building collapsed in less than three seconds, even though no airplane crashed into the building, and the fire that ravaged the building was not, in their opinion, strong enough to cause the collapse. They explain that Building 7 housed the secret headquarters of CIA and its collapse served to cover up any evidence of the deliberate demolition.
However, as with other conspiratorial arguments, the explanation is quite simple. Although from certain angles it appears that the building was not seriously damaged, the available footage shows that the opposite was true.
Directly above the ground level, a deep hole gaped in the building, reaching up to a quarter of its structure. The damage was caused by large fires fuelled by diesel generators. At the same time, due to the collision the water supply was cut off, so the automatic fire extinguishing system stopped to work. The intense fires subsequently undermined the strength of the beams.
A worrying statistic
As implausible as some of the conspiracy narratives sound, and as easy as some of the fabricated information is to debunk with one's own common sense, the experts' explanations can hardly compete with what part of the Slovak public wants to think.
According to a survey conducted by Bratislava-based think-tank GLOBSEC last year, 45% of Slovaks agree with the following proposition: "The attack on the World Trade Center was planned and carried out by the U.S. government, not Al-Qaeda."
Since the Slovak public appears to be highly susceptible to falling prey to disinformation and conspiracies, the experts are getting the short end of the stick. The countless expert studies, investigations, scientific research, the independent report of the impartial U.S. 9/11 Commission, or just common sense seem to make little difference.
From 9/11 to Covid-19
The conspiracy theories about 9/11 were among the first disinformation to benefit from the open Internet environment, which allowed them to develop and spread faster than ever before. The most recent event, which has also spawned a whole portfolio of conspiracy narratives that continue to thrive and evolve, is the Covid-19 pandemic.
The disinformation actors sought to exploit the low confidence in the official version of the 9/11 events to undermine the authenticity of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In general, they operate on the premise that “since they faked 9/11, they also faked the pandemic.” A Slovak Facebook conspiratory blog Strážca poznania (The guardian of knowledge), published a post depicting the falling towers and people wearing masks, stating that believing in the official version of the 9/11 events and wearing masks protecting against Covid-19 is proof of “herd reaction” and low consciousness.
It appears that by constantly reinforcing 9/11 conspiracy theories, the disinformation actors aim to nurture conspiratorial thinking in the population, which is then more inclined to refute any "official" version of events provided by public institutions, whether regarding the 9/11 events or the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, which is supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, continuously monitors the activities of both Slovak and foreign disinformation actors, but focuses mainly on the former. The project activities are built upon daily monitoring of emerging disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories in the online information space. This approach allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most, as well as to find out where they originated, and how they spread and evolved on social media. The report takes the form of a bi-weekly summary of arising trends in the spread of malicious information content online. Based on that, Infosecurity.sk can warn the public about emerging and current trends in the field of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.
Matej Spišák is a Research Fellow at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava and Editor-in-Chief at Infosecurity.sk.
Denis Takács is an Analyst at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava.