A tangled web
The net is the perfect medium for counter-information, analysing available data on the 11 September attacks, challenging official findings on the events and exploiting conspiracy theories
Pascal Lardellier / Le monde | September 13 2006
MEDIA coverage of the events of 11 September 2001 had to deal with an unexpected newcomer: the internet. But is the net a new medium or is it a counter-medium? We have to ask that question because the internet has encouraged circulation of a different type of information, while the conventional media relayed the standard version of the events as gospel, repeatedly showing nightmare images accompanied by a familiar institutional commentary, given by cohorts of pontificating experts.
Now, information highways are a spaghetti junction of alternative routes easily accessible to anyone who wants to get away from the main routes of the politically correct and ethnocentric, and that egress is often a good thing. Yet the digital counter-information saturating the net seems to be produced by some new version of the old socialist International organisations: internet users who want to spread the word about their findings or feelings, perhaps about 9/11. Their output spreads wide and loud, as the internet's characteristic viral circulation has amplified the old word of mouth into unprecedented resonance. Electronic mail circulates files continuously, and can reach hundreds of contacts with a single mouse click.
The meeting between relatively new technology and the historic disaster of 9/11 coincided with the emergence of blogs, those sites where people are at electronic liberty to air own views. While in internet chat rooms there are no holds barred over challenging partisan official versions, adducing technical, economic or political arguments in support (1).
The net is a powerful tool that allows us to escape our hang-ups. Everyone who surfs can take part in the debate (often anonymously, which is also significant). They get involved in information in the making. Some might be over-zealous in their search for the truth. It is easy to take shortcuts when interpreting numerical data of no fixed abode or to consider the net an open outlet: catharsis is inherent in the venting of resentment.
The net offers a lack of intermediaries, a total freedom of speech and instant access to all kinds of information via a few keywords. As scepticism of traditional media deepens, since they are always ready to perpetuate the system and back its adherents, the democratic and socially aware utopia of the net becomes the providential meeting-place of the anonymous, and also of dissenters and sceptics.
The 9/11 frenzy
One reaction to 9/11 was a furious media gun battle among practical jokers and conspirators, in which anything went and the first to click gained an advantage in disseminating his “truth”. In the interval between the collapse of the first World Trade Centre tower and that of the second, several domain names linked to the event were registered. That suggests either an extraordinarily cynical entrepreneurial spirit or the desire to take refuge in the virtual world at a time of disaster.
There was also an on-line explosion of doubtful jokes, fantasy claims, images parodying the tragedy, summary counter-investigations and simplistic attempts to show the world in black and white; the pseudo-scientific vied with the irrational. For the most part the fantastic stories were read with amusement only by surfers who enjoy these digital dalliances. But a few things went further.
The most important was the Meyssan affair. After a skilful pre-publication promotion campaign on the net, the book 9/11: The Big Lie (2) was published in France. Its author, Thierry Meyssan, claimed that a US missile and not a hijacked passenger jet hit the Pentagon. The rumour rapidly spread and was taken up by many elements in the media; although they criticised Meyssan, their coverage boosted the book's visibility and sales.
At the same time, many websites were launched which made similar claims after analysing the same available images and promoted a conspiracy theory. The basic allegation was that the US secret services had fomented the events of 9/11 in an effort to provoke a mood of emotion and indignation that would open the way to massive rearmament and a policy of preemptive war. Meyssan's approach was revisionist in spirit; it surfed on a wave of scepticism, partly resulting from the definite advantage that the Bush administration had gained from the attacks, and it exploited some people's paranoia.
However, obtaining and disseminating information is a process that has to be learnt: it has rules, including the verification of sources and facts. Because of the freedom that the net offers, some virtual investigators believe they can ignore those constraints. (That is not to say that some elements of traditional written, broadcast and televised media do not take the same view; they certainly do, and with gay abandon.)
Five years after 9/11, the whole furore seemed to be subsiding into history. Nevertheless, journalists, researchers, teachers and even politicians are now rightly questioning the US administration's lack of transparency about the events and demanding the investigation be reopened. Their weapon is the net.
Consider Dylan Avery, a young net surfer, who recently reopened the 9/11 dossier. In a way that recalls the conspiracy nerds in The X-Files, he produced a film that is rattling the US. Alone at home with his laptop he made Loose Change for $2,000: a very professional 80-minute documentary, easily accessible on the net. It uses the theory of a US conspiracy to explain the attack on the Pentagon and also, more audaciously, the attack on the World Trade Centre itself. Avery has used video documents, archives, audio extracts and 3D animation to create a fascinating and troubling document that challenges the official version of the attacks (3).
Thousands of net users have followed him in scouring the net for evidence, looking at the videos from the major broadcasters, the witness statements filed at the time and re-reading the inquiry reports. All question the scientific weaknesses of the official theory. Setting aside whether such review is relevant, we have to allow that it takes courage to raise the issue in the US against the backdrop of the Patriot Act.
How reliable are these documentaries? Rumour specialist Pascal Froissart said: “Aesthetically, they are superb: wonderful images, perfect narrative, with new twists every three minutes or three pages, stars in action . . . It's tremendously effective and more like the SAS, OSS-117 or James Bond than the Warren Commission report (4). The intention is less getting at the truth than producing spectacle. Is it for us to judge the substance? Despite the million pages processed, I have no knowledge of pyrotechnics, terrorism-ology or ballistics.”
These are the subjects on which (often pseudo) experts theorise, and how can you take part in inevitably technical debates without the necessary knowledge? How can we have faith in the UVOs (unidentified video objects) constantly encountered on the net when we know how easy it is to manipulate images, especially digital images? All the theories founder on this.
They also play on the fears of a time when people have lost their points of reference, and major concerns about health, climate, the economy and politics are unsettling a public that already feels disoriented.
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