Who Still Believes in 911 Conspiracies?
Ever since 11 September 2001, there have been claims the US government played a central role in the attacks on the World Trade Center complex. Few mainstream political figures want anything to do with the idea, yet its presence dominates the Internet and some of the most frequently viewed websites and posted videos concern this idea.
Discussions of who believes in 911 conspiracy theories have generally been left to speculation. One major empirical examination focused on a 2006 random sample of Americans. The results pointed to media exposure, as well as political involvement as important factors in acceptance of 911 conspiracy theories. While drawing no firm conclusions about implications, the authors speculated a larger role for belief in conspiracy as a part of mainstream American politics. They conclude that 911 conspiracy is, “…aligned with mainstream political party divisions [providing] evidence that conspiracy thinking is now a normal part of mainstream political conflict in the United States” .
The data for this study, however, was gathered in 2006 when 911 conspiracy was seen as a protest against the Bush Administration. Since the 2008 election of President Obama, much support for this idea among Democrats has disappeared. Similarly, other signs of public support related to 911 conspiracies have dwindled.
Demonstrations held by 911 conspiracy theorists each year at Ground Zero in New York City peaked in 2006 and, while still held, are only sparsely attended. As a result, the question of who still believes in 911 conspiracies remains open.
This paper reports on an exploratory study of membership in a group that promotes 911 conspiracies. Using the Internet social networking system Facebook, the aim of this paper is to provide an empirical examination of people who have publicly ascribed to belief in 911 conspiracy theories.
We Are Change
We Are Change (WAC) is a grassroots Internet-based organization that promotes a series of vague secular beliefs about government control over the world. Websites and Facebook pages of the organization often refer to some form of global control they term the New World Order (NWO). WAC members and chapters advocate a series of beliefs about the involvement of the US government in the 911 attacks. Foremost among these is the idea that the US government was responsible for controlled demolitions that destroyed World Trade Center (WTC) buildings 1, 2, and 7. Mention is frequently given to use of thermite and arguments that imply a vast coordinated effort between shadowy unnamed characters . WAC also opposes explanations that no airline jets were crashed into the WTC – the so-called “no planer” theories. Individuals who promote these ideas are referred to as “disinfo”, and there is much speculation they work for shadowy government-affiliated groups to discredit ‘legitimate’ Truth groups.
WAC claims many chapters both in the USA and around the world. It is widely believed among membership and supporters it is one of the largest and most influential 911 Truth groups. The true extent of membership and support is difficult to gauge. WAC is very active on the Internet social networking system Facebook. Each official group is required to have a website, and virtually every group uses Facebook for this purpose. While WAC Facebook groups sometimes list more than 1000 members, it is not clear what these numbers means. Involvement in Facebook groups entails low-commitment. As such, these membership counts are a poor indicator of support for WAC claims about 911.
Outside of the Internet, however, We Are Change is by far the most active 911 conspiracy group. WAC is responsible for almost every 911 conspiracy-related street demonstration and rally in the USA and elsewhere. Every year around September 11, there is a demonstration held at Ground Zero in New York City protesting what they claim was official government involvement in the 911 attacks. In recent demonstrations, almost all participants appear to be members of WAC with no other organization playing a significant role in the planning and execution.
This study used information obtained through publicly available Facebook accounts to build a profile of individuals who believe in 911 conspiracy theories. Given the low threshold necessary for Facebook affiliation, this study compared a high commitment and a low commitment group of 911 conspiracy theorists. Low commitment believers are represented by members of a Facebook WAC group. High commitment believers are represented by participants in major public 911 Truth demonstrations.
The profiles of low commitment (LC) believers were obtained from a sample of one of the largest WAC Facebook groups. Beginning in February 2010, I obtained a convenience sample of 60 members of a major WAC Facebook group. Total membership of the group fluctuates regularly. On July 31, 2010, when this portion of the study was finalized, membership was 508. Members were not sampled in any systematic fashion and these 60 names represent those who appeared at the top of the membership menu when it was requested from Facebook. Of these, 58 useful Facebook profiles were obtained.
The high commitment (HC) conspiracy believers are members of WAC who took part in a series of 911-related demonstrations in New York City held in 2009. The first of these was the 911 memorial demonstration held to commemorate the September 11 attacks. The second demonstration held on September 27, 2009 was organized to draw attention to a petition the group supported calling for a new investigation into the 911 attacks. The petition is referred to as NYCCAN .
Both these demonstrations were recorded at the time, and many photos and videos of the event were posted on individual Facebook accounts and on Youtube. WAC videos of the memorial demonstration were taken in a way that made counting attendance very difficult. My estimate of the clearest videos, which are no longer available on Youtube, was that slightly more than 100 people attended. The NYCCAN demonstration was filmed by a member of James Randi Educational Forum and posted on Youtube. While it is difficult to distinguish protestors from pedestrians, I have counted the demonstration several times and arrived at approximately the same number as I obtained for the 911 memorial demonstration, slightly more than 100.
In addition, Facebook accounts of participants have featured photographs from the two events with the names of other participants labeled. By comparing the labeled names found on different Facebook accounts, I was able to recover a total of 53 names for people who attended the two events. Fifty-two (52) of these names appeared in photos of both demonstrations. Only one person appeared in a photo of the NYCCAN demonstration but not a photo of the 911 memorial demonstration leading me to belief that participation was almost identical. I was then able to gather publicly available background information from the Facebook accounts of these participants.
The overwhelming majority of both groups are male. Seventy-nine percent of the LC (n=45) and 75% of HC (n=40) were male. Age could be identified for 49 of the LC and 28 of the HC believers. The mean age of participants was 27.4 years and 28.0 years, respectively. The median age was not substantially different.
Employment information for the LC group was obtained for 21 members. Six members of the LC group identified themselves as students. Three are currently still in high school. At least one appears to be a part-time student. Two members described themselves as self-employed. Only 3 of the surveyed members reported clearly professional occupations, identifying themselves as teacher, pharmacist and lab manager. The remainder of members appeared to be marginally employed, reporting such jobs as drivers, clerks, phone bank operators, or simply, “have 5 part-time jobs”.
Employment was rarely reported for members of the HC group, although they did claim a substantial level of education. Two HC members reported graduate degrees and several stated having graduated from top-ranked schools. Results from the HC point to a significant level of computer sophistication. One member identified himself as the owner of a computer store. Three others reported education and employment in computer related fields. This may explain the large number of high quality videos the group is able to place on the Internet.
Four members of the LC group stated their religion as Muslim. It’s not clear if this reflects a larger pattern of belief in 911 conspiracies or WAC membership, or is the result of the influence of a prominent member of the group who also claims to be Muslim. Identified religious affiliation of the HC group was almost completely Christian. The only identified Muslim in the HC group is also a member of the LC group. In fact, the degree of Christian affiliation claimed by the HC group was substantial. Seven of the HC group either endorsed a Christian-themed Facebook group or identified themselves as Christians. Three others are members of the Constitution Party, which has as its platform to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations” . One member of the HC group has run for public office with the Constitution Party.
While Facebook does not require members to post political information, many members of LC group did so. In my sample, I was able to recover information about the political affiliation of 7 members. The labels used by members include “Constitutionalist”, “Christian Constitutional Party”, “member of the Tea Party”. One member who identified himself as a “libertarian Mormon” had pictures of himself using firearms posted in his profile. No surveyed member identified themselves with a mainstream political party or a moderate political philosophy, such as liberal or conservative. The HC group was much more likely to identify a political direction or affiliation. By far the strongest affiliation was with the libertarian Ron Paul. Twenty-two (22) members of the HC group belonged to Facebook groups that support Ron Paul, including a substantial number who had photographs of themselves with Ron Paul posted in their Facebook account. Two addition members described themselves as “paleo-conservative”. Two (2) identified themselves as “tea party members” and 1 as a “birther”. As mentioned above, 3 HC group members belong to the Constitution Party which, in addition to its position on separation of Church and State, opposes gun control, public health insurance, and advocates an isolationist political position. Almost every HC group member belonged to groups that support 2 members of WAC who are Libertarian Party candidates in New York.
The Facebook profiles of many HC group members identified many other political causes and affiliation. These included pro-gun groups, the John Birch Society, or pro-life groups. Only one member of the HC group described herself as “liberal”, making her the only person in the total 111 surveyed members to do so.
One unexpected result of this study was the attrition rate of members. The complete study covered almost an entire year. During this time, some members dropped out of the groups. While verifying some of the profiles, I discovered that several members whose profiles I had surveyed earlier in the year had removed their Facebook profiles. In the LC group, I was able to confirm that one professionally employed member and another who worked in a high profile company had removed their membership, not just from WAC, but completely from Facebook. The HC group showed much stronger stability. Two members of the HC group have also become impossible to reach through Facebook, although I believe they are still active in WAC. An additional member, who was recently married, has become much more actively involved in the political campaign of Ron Paul and subsequently less involved in WAC 911 conspiracy activities.
This paper reports on a study of member in a group that advocates 911 conspiracy. It examined members who demonstrated different levels of commitment to the belief. A low commitment group was only marginally involved in promoting the idea, having only joined a Facebook group. A high commitment group, on the other hand, was composed of members involved in a public demonstration of this belief. Despite the differences in their level of commitment to the idea, both groups were very similar in composition.
Both groups were overwhelmingly young males. The low commitment group contained many marginally employed members. Members with better jobs seemed to be drifting away. The highly committed group contained more well-educated members and, in this group, drifting away seemed connected to growing family commitments. It is not clear from this analysis if levels of education reflect characteristics of believers in 911 conspiracies or differences between followers and their leadership. Both groups were largely affiliated with a formalized organization that has a name (We Are Change) and leadership positions with titles. The deeper involvement of a more educated group may be a result of qualification and preparation for this kind of role.
The more significant results pertained to political affiliations. Earlier research on 911 conspiracies has described the belief as appealing to supporters of the Democratic Party. In addition, discussions I have seen on such venues as the James Randi Educational Forum describe 911 conspiracy as a non-partisan issue with no specific appeal to either the left or right. This was not confirmed by my samples. The individuals surveyed here were overwhelmingly involved in right-wing politics, particularly with Ron Paul the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party.
Much of this confusion about political affiliation may stem from an orientation that falls outside the traditional bipartisan political structure of the United States. None of the surveyed individuals, either in the high- or the –commitment group, reported affiliation with one of the two traditional parties. Many reported seeing little difference between the two because both were clearly involved in the secret New World Order and subsequently, the government conspiracy that destroyed the World Trade Center buildings.
The patterns found in this data do not support the contention that affiliation with the Democratic Party predicts belief in 911 conspiracy theories . While it is understandable that Democrats would have supported a conspiracy theory that placed a Republican president at the center, with a Democratic president, this is less likely. In addition, these researchers suggested a growing normalcy of conspiracy in contemporary political thinking. My findings are not consistent with this position. 911 conspiracy theories do not seem to hold widespread appeal and are instead as part of a larger system of beliefs about the political structure of the United States. Even relatively low commitment to 911 conspiracies is associated with affiliations to groups and individuals with extreme right-wing political beliefs falling outside the traditional spectrum of American politics. Greater commitment found a correspondingly larger affiliation to these ideas with no meaningful exception to this pattern. It would appear that patterns of belief in 911 conspiracies have changed dramatically with the political landscape of America and now, belief is localized almost exclusively among right-wing supporters of parties that fall outside the traditional bipartisan landscape of American politics.
Notes & References
1. Stempel, C., T. Hargrove, and G. H. Stempel III. 2007. Media Use, Social Structure and Belief in 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 84: 353- 372.
2. Ibid p. 1
3.Jacobson, M. The Ground Zero Grassy Knoll New York
March 19, 2006 Available at http://nymag.com/news/features/16464/, see also
Mole, P. 2006. 9/11 Truth Movement in Perspective. The Skeptic. Available at http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/06-09-11/
4. NYCCAN Vote for Accountability. Available at http://www.nyccan.org/
5. NYCCAN March Sep 27, 2009 – The smallest protest in NYC, ever. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwjKDmA7Gi4
6. Constitution Party Platform. Available at http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Preamble
7. Stempel, Hargrove and Stempel. Ibid.