(A follow-up to Part I: The Conspiracy Label as a Tool of Propaganda, Part I: Origins and Organizations Behind the Conspiracy Label)
When my stepdaughter was nine years old, about a week or so before Christmas, she asked me after her completely unrelated bedtime story – it was either Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland – if Santa Claus was real. Paraphrasing the event, I put the question back to her, “what do you think?” “Well,” she started, “I don’t see how he can deliver all those toys to all the girls and boys all around the world in one night. Maybe it has something to do with time zones? I don’t know. And how does he get into houses that don’t have chimneys? Maybe he just uses his magic? I don’t know!” Though credulous toward the narrative, she neutralized her cognitive dissonance and returned to the normalcy of believing the impossible. A week later, she was satisfied with what “Santa brought her,” but I suspected that was the last year we would leave out milk and cookies for the Big Guy.
When she was ten, Chloe posed the same question at bedtime about three or so weeks before Christmas day – by this time, we had moved on to an abridged version of Moby Dick (surprisingly, her choice). I answered the same way as before, but this time she almost immediately exclaimed, “I think it’s you and mommy!” I responded with feigned naïveté, “oh, and what makes you think that?” Her reasoning had advanced: “There’s just too many kids who don’t believe in Santa, and all the toys we get are already at the store. Why would Santa have to go to the store to get toys? Why would parents have to get toys at the store if Santa has them at the North Pole? Why doesn’t everybody believe in Santa?” “Look,” I responded, “just do your mom and me a favor and don’t go to school and tell your friends Santa isn’t real. Some of them probably still believe, and their parents would be mad if their kids come home saying they don’t believe in Santa anymore. Okay?” “Ok… did you get me the tablet I asked for?”
Mind you, even though I didn’t like the principle of misleading my child, I tried to respect her beliefs, and there’s a certain enjoyment in seeing the wonder in a child’s eyes – not to mention, “Santa” is part of secular Christmas traditions propelled by immense pressure to partake in perpetuating the socially constructed practices. That said, the jig was up, I came clean, and while her mom was a bit saddened, she was also relieved we no longer had to run the ruse and continue to collude in the Santa Claus conspiracy. Personally, I was disabused of that particular myth around the age of four or five. I remember having had a Polaroid picture taken of me and my cousin sitting on Santa’s lap, providing tactile and lasting visual proof that he was real. The Christmas trees in the various households where I was raised had presents for the adults only. After all, Santa did not deliver children’s presents until after we went to bed on Christmas Eve, or so I was told. My beliefs in the literal existence of Santa Claus were seemingly justified truths, and unlike Chloe, I was too young to question my given reality.
Then, I made the mistake of going through a door I was explicitly told not to open. I snuck into the basement when I wasn’t supposed to, and there I witnessed my grandmother and mother wrapping toys later to be gifted to us kids as “Santa’s” Christmas presents. I still remember the looks on their faces when they spotted me at the top of the stairs. I knew I was in big trouble. What I didn’t know is that I had unknowingly opened the door to a larger, truer world. This is a world in which adults produce an elaborate set of material and symbolic structures, processes, events, characters, myths, and legends designed to deceive a sizeable yet more ignorant and gullible portion of the population. After that, I began to question a lot of the world around me and have never really stopped. Like a normal child, I still feared unseen things in the dark, but the Easter bunny, tooth fairy, and more institutionalized icons no longer made it past my nascent critical skepticism. Perhaps this is why I believe in (some) conspiracy theories, or perhaps sometimes there is just too much evidence not to.
Multi-institutional Politics of Popular Myths
Why have I spent so many valuable words in this limited space on such a story? First, I had stated in Part I of this series that I would return to the Santa Claus conspiracy, and I didn’t want to make myself out to be a liar. I try to speak the truth whenever possible. Second, I think it’s a cute story that humanizes me. As I’ll take up in Part III of this series, the conspiracy label often operates as a derogatory slur that dehumanizes its targets. More and more, it is being institutionalized as a designation of a class of people worthy not just of social denigration but as a category authorized to be formally sanctioned. Lastly, the Santa conspiracy is demonstrable of the fact that there are widespread mythmaking processes involving both normatively ideological and materially physical mechanisms designed to deceive many fellow members of society. But that is only part of the story about multi-institutional politics. There are also matters of authority and legitimation.
The Santa Claus conspiracy illustrates the multi-institutional politics involved in constructing and maintaining a fictional reality. This myth has produced a multi-billion dollar industry, myriad social customs spanning history and geography, ritualized familial and communal traditions, and a host of social norms that dissuade people from questioning or revealing that given reality. How it works is this: parents and peers pressure children into accepting Santa as an empirically real or true aspect of capital-R reality, people in the know are encouraged to maintain secrecy about the ruse, and complicit adults often do not question or consciously help to maintain the latent social functions of Christmas (e.g., personal meaning and fulfillment, social solidarity and cohesion, charity and volunteer work, employment opportunities, corporate profits, tax revenues, international trade relations, etc.). Like surprise parties, sports teams, and most business meetings, the Santa Claus conspiracy is an open secret maintained by conspiracies of silence, elaborate hoaxes, and the conscious employment of mis- and disinformation. For many of the victims of the Santa conspiracy, everybody is in on it, especially those figures of authority they trust most.
If there are large-scale, history-defining criminal conspiracies that exist in the world we live in, there are networks of mutually reinforcing social institutions, organizations, and groups that defend the official, authorized accounts of “what actually happened” from “conspiracy theories” proposed by people labeled as “conspiracy theorists.” I will address that convenient bit of circular reasoning in a future installment, but here take the Santa Claus conspiracy as an instance of the type of multi-institutional politics that would be involved, mundane as it might be. A loosely coupled network of families, friends, teachers, classmates, religious congregations, songs, movies, TV shows, marketing campaigns, toys, store shelves, and even the nightly news and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) are in on it. Why shouldn’t a naïve child believe in the myth? Not only do people they trust tell them it’s true, but they receive emotional, social, and material benefits, which also serve as further proof that Santa is real. These various sources of authority, alongside material rewards (i.e., presents and social approval) and instilled fear of punishment (i.e., presents replaced by coal and sticks, social ostracism), legitimate the myth. When it comes to officialdom and conspiracy theories, these various types of “evidence” constitute what philosophers have termed fortuitous data – if you look to footnote two on page 568, you’ll see where I’m coming from with this Santa conspiracy business.
For any given major historical event, such as the assassination of President Kennedy or the events of September 11, 2001, there is always fortuitous data that conveniently fits the official script of how those events are conventionally recounted, but then again, there always seem to be anomalies, too. When seemingly inexplicable anomalies characteristic of authorized accounts are questioned or discussed by citizen sleuths, fact-checkers crop up to explain away those anomalies. These fact-checkers represent many of society’s central legitimizing institutions, and they operate individually, in groups, and as organizations. These include college and university professors, journalists, professional skeptics, independent and amateur debunkers (a professional software engineer and chemist, respectively), technical entrepreneurs, editors and authors for popular trade magazines, news digests, premium cable channels (e.g., National Geographic), global news outlets, open online encyclopedias, and branches of the federal government. If, after seriously considering the arguments from those sources, you still believe that anomalies in official accounts, like the collapse of the third skyscraper in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, are kernels of actual truths often said to be at the heart of every conspiracy theory, then you might have stopped believing in Santa at an early age as well (perhaps you never believed to begin with). But to the fact-checkers, you probably suffer from the vice of a crippled epistemology, paranoia, psychopathy, a host of other psychological disorders, and/or simply a univariate way of (mis)understanding deep politics.
Institutional Politics of 9/11 Truth: A Journalist
Around the time my daughter was questioning the metaphysics of Santa, I was beginning to research the existing peer-reviewed literature on the 9/11 Truth movement. Unlike Laura Jones’s excellent academic work, most of what I found I considered to be part of the construction of the movement, and “conspiracy theorists” generally, as a social problem. For example, Jonathan Kay’s “admittedly unscientific” study of the 9/11 Truth movement (and other so-called “conspiracists”) resulted in his 2011 book, Among the Truthers. His book inspired the title of my doctoral dissertation, “Discourse Among the Truthers and Deniers of 9/11,” and I showcase him as an exemplar of the progenitors of anti-conspiracy discourse. Like Laura Jones, he and I have both interviewed and spent time interacting with members of the 9/11 Truth movement, and we both agree that “The 9/11 Truth movement is a socially constructed conspiracist phenomenon.” [Kay, Jonathan. Among the Truthers (p. 183). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.] From his conation and context of the book, I suspect we disagree on how and by whom the 9/11 Truth movement has come to be socially constructed as a “conspiracist phenomenon,” though I think we both can agree that people who believe no planes collided with the Twin Towers but instead appeared as holographic projections do seem, at least occasionally, “out-and-out insane.” [Kay, Jonathan. Among the Truthers (p. 183). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]
Perhaps it’s because his book was meant for the popular press that Kay chose to use such dismissive language and labels throughout his book. Assuming his degrees in Law and Metallurgical Engineering and career in journalism indicate his scholarly and occupational backgrounds, I have to conclude that analyzing the psychological and sociological aspects of conspiracism is a hobby rather than professional pursuit. For example, aside from the total lack of citations to any professional psychological sources, Kay provides not a single reference to the sources of what appear to be his pet diagnoses in a section titled, “The Clinical Conspiracist.” Consider that when you read this passage from that section:
“The telltale indicator of genuine clinical insanity lies with the structure of the conspiracist narrative. Sane conspiracists subconsciously erect a rigid mental firewall that insulates their real day-to-day lives from the life-and-death implications of their fantasies: The resulting doublethink allows them to sleep at night and maintain productive, functional lives without succumbing to the dread fear that their government will punish their truth-seeking activism with murder. (Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Truth movement is that its activists typically hold their meetings in large, unsecured locations such as college auditoriums—even as they insist that government agents will stop at nothing to protect their conspiracy for world domination from discovery.) Truly disturbed conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, can’t sustain that firewall. They weave themselves into the fantasy, usually as both hero and target.”[KAY, JONATHAN. AMONG THE TRUTHERS (PP. 184-185). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.]
From where did he get his analytic framework to make such an assessment? He doesn’t say. Furthermore, consider how he contradicts himself when he states in the above passage that activists within the Truth movement hold in-person meetings, which I’ve attended during field research for my ethnography, but that he also asserts that the 9/11 Truth movement is “cobbled together on the Internet from the contributions of thousands of different people,” which I’ve observed for years as part of the online component to my ethnography. [Kay, Jonathan. Among the Truthers (p. 183). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.] Cover to cover, I don’t see where I am supposed to buy into his ethos regarding relevant credentials, practices, or even internal consistency.
Though lacking substance with regard to scientifically validated credentials and practices backing whatever methods and analytic techniques he employed — they’re not discussed, at least not in any scholarly sense — Kay’s book continues this year to be cited as an authoritative source by otherwise serious scholars doing peer-reviewed research into the nature of why “conspiracy theorists” believe in “conspiracy theories.” In the section below, I pursue my assertion that its citation in peer-reviewed research as an authoritative source is an abridgment of scientific integrity, but also to demonstrate how the 9/11 Truth movement has been socially constructed by the multi-institutional politics of anti-conspiracy discourse. To see how Kay develops his own style of anti-conspiracy discourse we need to read a few paragraphs from his book.
In what follows, Kay recounts his participation in one of Richard Gage’s presentations. For full disclosure, I have interviewed Richard Gage. I have also been present for several of his speeches and presentations, and I introduced him in 2011 at the screening of his organization’s documentary, 9/11 Explosive Evidence – Experts Speak Out. Am I biased? Yes. Is Jonathan Kay? Decide for yourself:
In one particularly effective segment during his stump presentation, Gage puts up shots of the localized fires that broke out in the lower floors of WTC Building 7 hours before it collapsed. Seconds later, he shows footage of Beijing’s Mandarin Oriental hotel — which suffered an epic top-to-bottom conflagration in 2009, yet remained standing. It’s a cinematic juxtaposition that plays to the Truthers’ strongest card: Even many architects and structural engineers who’ve never heard of Richard Gage will concede that the collapse of WTC 7, a fairly typical 1980s-era structure located about a football field away from WTC 1, was unusual.
Before beginning his presentation in Montreal, Gage had polled the crowd on their views. Five people, including me and my guest, said they believed the ‘official theory’ of 9/11. Ten others said they were ‘unsure.’ Everyone else — about two hundred people — said they believed the WTC came down through ‘controlled demolition.’ Once Gage had finished, he conducted a second poll. This time, when he asked how many people supported the ‘official theory,’ mine was the only hand raised.”[KAY, JONATHAN. AMONG THE TRUTHERS (P. 152-153). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.]
Apparently, Jonathan Kay was able to withstand Gage’s propaganda, which has spread widely on social media and became one of C-SPAN’s most watched online videos. Somehow, Jonathan Kay and others who remain unconverted to 9/11 Truth by such claims are immune to such mis- and dis-information, perhaps due to their psychological stability, critical thinking faculties, and adherence to the reality principle. Or, perhaps there are certain types of people, whether they are motivated by psychological, personal, professional, financial, social, or ideological interests, who do not play by the same rules as the rest of the kids on the playground. Though he might contest that point, maybe the rules of logic and rational, evidence-based discourse do not apply to people like Jonathan Kay. Imagine, for whatever reason, a child telling their friends during recess that Santa isn’t real, but along comes a kid who “trots out” every reason for why Santa is real. Since Santa isn’t real, they would have to use rhetorical fallacies, illogical reasoning, and/or anti-empirical claims. In my estimate, these are hallmarks of anti-conspiracy discourse.
Another hallmark of anti-conspiracy discourse is to psychologize empirical claims that counter and contradict official narratives of historically significant events. This is a way to socially construct empirical claims like those made about the collapse of WTC 7 as non-problems, or what environmental sociologists call non-problematicity. As an example, here is Jonathan Kay describing later in his book how he, a man who absolutely knows the Truth about 9/11, cannot win arguments against Truthers because they are, in essence, crazy:
As discussed later in this chapter, I believe a certain very specific kind of education can be helpful for inoculating young minds against conspiracy theories. But as Mbeki’s example illustrates, conspiracism is only a nominally intellectual exercise. As argued in Chapter 5, it originates in an overlapping tangle of emotional and psychological factors that typically elude intellectual self-awareness, and which can’t be refuted by logic and evidence: ethnic bigotry, fear of societal change and new technologies, economic uncertainty, midlife ennui, medical trauma, coming-of-age hubris, spiritual hunger, narcissism, the psychic scars left by past traumas, and outright psychosis.
This explains why arguing down a committed conspiracy theorist is impossible. Whenever I’ve tried to debate Truthers on the facts of 9/11, for instance, all of my accumulated knowledge about the subject has proven entirely useless — because in every exchange, the conspiracy theorist inevitably would ignore the most obvious evidence and instead focus the discussion on the handful of obscure, allegedly incriminating oddities that he had memorized. No matter how many of these oddities I manage to bat away (even assuming I have the facts immediately at hand to do so), my debating opponent always has more at hand. In this game, the conspiracist claims victory merely by scoring a single uncontested point — since, as he imagines it, every card he plays is a trump.
I’ll admit to feeling personally humbled by my failure to get the best of conspiracy theorists: What was the use in going through the official 9/11 report with a highlighter and Post-it notes, much less writing a whole book on the subject of Trutherdom, if I couldn’t win an argument with a single college student? But on a more fundamental level, I also felt disillusioned by what this experience taught me about the limits of intellectual discourse itself. Even the reality of lived experience — the most direct path to truth there is — has been undermined by the conspiracist mindset, which overlooks eyewitness reports — of a plane flying into the Pentagon, or skyscrapers collapsing without any hint of internal demolition — in favour of tortured inferences from scattered esoterica.[KAY, JONATHAN. AMONG THE TRUTHERS (P. 312-314). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.]
In his case, Jonathan Kay assumes that myriad psychological disorders, intellectual defects, and social deviancies are the reasons why people make empirical claims about the events of September 11, 2001, that contradict the authorized narrative, a story Kay defends. This was the tactic Kay employed when he debated Webster Griffin Tarpley on *BookTV* for C-SPAN2. Even when directly confronted about this by professionals and experts within the 9/11 Truth movement who he interviewed for his book, Kay denied any wrongdoing, just like he denies nearly every contradictory claim about the official, authorized accounts of 9/11. This is why I used the label 9/11 Denier in my doctoral work, because people like Jonathan Kay deny, deny, deny.
Jonathan Kay denies his readers the chance to evaluate particular details of what he considers among the strongest empirical claims made by the 9/11 Truth movement, which he says are claims about the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7, “Truthers’ strongest card.” [Kay, Jonathan. Among the Truthers (p. 153). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]. Instead, he refers his readers to the very sources contested by the 9/11 Truth movement. Applaudingly, he does mention WTC 7 and its collapse, which the official 9/11 Commission report failed to do, but Kay failed to mention what many of the people I interviewed all seemed to have memorized: WTC 7 was a 47-story steel-framed skyscraper located at the World Trade Center complex in Manhattan, and it would have been the tallest building at the time in two-thirds of the states in the USA; at 5:20 pm on September 11, 2001, it collapsed suddenly, symmetrically, and uniformly into its foundation at freefall acceleration. A nationally representative poll that I helped conduct in early September of 2021 showed that 48% of the U.S. public were unaware that a third building collapsed in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and that 48% of the U.S. public believe the free fall collapse was due to office fires started by debris ejected from the Twin Towers. These are astonishing data points for the power of propaganda to keep people in the dark. In many cases of formally published works on “9/11 conspiracy theories,” that incident goes entirely unmentioned, such as in the official 9/11 Commission report — this point bears repeating in terms of its relevance to Kay’s next quote below. Again, this is how the social construction of non-problems works: Ignore the claims, deny that the claims are problematic, and then if need be, problematize the claims as signifiers of psychological abnormalities.
Jonathan Kay is fully aware of the “unusual” collapse of WTC 7, unmoved as he is by otherwise convincing explanations counter to the official story. So why does he not go into detail about how it collapsed, let alone utilize his background in metallurgical engineering to refute any contentions contradicting official accounts about it? The answer lies in the outset of his book. There, Kay states that his work “is not intended as a rebuttal to conspiracists. Nor,” he continues,
“will I provide a complete recitation of their elaborate proofs. Those seeking a point-by-point rebuttal to the claims of the 9/11 Truth movement already have several fine resources at their disposal. In particular, I recommend the 2006 book Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand up to the Facts, authored by the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine…”[KAY, JONATHAN. AMONG THE TRUTHERS (P. 20). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.]
I pick back up on an analysis of Popular Mechanics’ book in a further section below but take note here of what Kay suggests: it is not in his or his readers’ interests to know the full extent of the exact claims made by those he interviewed. Instead of direct rebuttals, Kay prefers to cite the very sources scrutinized by the 9/11 Truth movement. Similar patterns follow in the works that cite Kay as an authority on the truth of those who question the official accounts of 9/11.
Having made known that the point of his book is not to debate members of the 9/11 Truth movement, a task he admittedly failed at even when it came to debating a college student, Kay’s efforts are exacted, ostensibly, to help his readers understand why people believe in conspiracy theories. In particular, he directs his readers to the sources used to construct the official, authorized explanations of the historically significant events held in contention by “conspiracy theorists,” particularly those related to 9/11 Truth:
Readers who wish to devote more time to the issue might also consider reading the Final Report of the 9–11 Commission, released in 2004; Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2006 account of the history of 9/11, The Looming Tower; and, for those who share my interest in technical material, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s exhaustive Final Reports of the Federal Building and Fire Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster (a twenty-million-dollar effort that took three years to produce, and drew on the efforts of three hundred staff and external experts). I also recommend a brief, but highly illuminating 2006 paper by explosives and demolitions expert Brent Blanchard entitled A Critical Analysis of the Collapse of WTC Towers 1,2&7 From a Conventional Explosives and Demolitions Industry Viewpoint. It can be found on the website of the Journal of Debunking 9/11, which contains a number of other interesting articles aimed at helping laypeople refute Truther claims.[KAY, JONATHAN. AMONG THE TRUTHERS (P. 20). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.]
Would it be reasonable to say that “conspiracy theorists” are wrong about the significance of the collapse of WTC 7 because the official government position produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), supported by corporate media outlets like Popular Mechanics, is or should be assumed to be correct? Would I be asserting a correct or true claim if I told a child that the reason we know Santa exists is that the nightly news and NORAD track him flying in the sky, or would I be using the rhetorical fallacy of making an appeal to authority? Why does NIST automatically become trustworthy, especially considering that Kay himself along with several thousand architects and engineers find its collapse “unusual,” to say the least? At what point in time does a person have enough counterfactual evidence and logical conclusions to completely dismiss any claim of the literal existence of Santa Claus? It seems as though there is a total lack of curiosity about the empirical claims made by those who Jonathan Kay and many other researchers study. Why are they not interested in the nature of why people believe in conspiracy theories in relation to questions about and claims contrary to official narratives of how or why WTC 7 collapsed, other than to reference as refutations the very sources scrutinized by the so-called “conspiracists” they study? Psychologism, circular reasoning, appeals to authority, and outright ignoring of claims and arguments are rampant in the anti-conspiracy literature.
Institutional Politics of the Conspiracy Label: Academic Researchers
To date, Google Scholar shows that Kay’s book has been cited 111 times. This is not necessarily a profoundly impactful number, though it is nothing to ignore either. Consider, for example, that to date two of the most widely cited works referencing Kay’s book have 1,348 and 1,181 citations, and the next two have 670 and 664. Do these highly cited academic works critically analyze Kay’s research methods for merit rooted in the type of rigor, reliability, and validity that qualitative research is typically held to in order to establish trustworthiness? Or, do they adhere to the standards and principles of anti-conspiracy discourse? Let’s see.
In one instance, we see a brief reference to Kay’s book in a footnote that implores readers to see his book as the authoritative source for a “review and criticism of the ‘truth movement’” (see footnote 30, page 49). The source is a book-length refutation of the “re-enchantment paradigm,” of which David Ray Griffin’s book, The Reenchantment of Science, is a main source of contention. Maybe a general opposition to Griffin’s works, or perhaps just common adherence to the conventional wisdom of the 9/11 narrative, is why the footnote (f. 30, p. 49) citing Kay’s book, starts as follows: “More recently, Griffin has become notorious for his deep involvement with the 9/11 ‘truth movement’, having written no less than eleven books of rampant conspiracy theory.” [sic] This reminds me of how Tucker Carlson addressed David Ray Griffin during a 2006 interview: “I’m merely saying it is wrong, blasphemous, and sinful for you to suggest, imply, or help other people come to the conclusion that the U.S. government killed 3,000 of its own citizens, because it didn’t.” The incantations of “wrong, blasphemous, and sinful,” and “notorious,” “rampant,” and the use of the “conspiracy theory” label, are ways to reenchant beliefs in the mythos of 9/11 without having to actually address any of the empirical claims in any of Griffin’s 11 books. “How does Santa’s sleigh defy the laws of gravity?” “Nevermind that question, only bad boys and girls doubt Santa is real!”
In The Enigma of Reason, which currently has been cited the most out of all the books referencing Among the Truthers, Kay’s book is discussed as if it represents legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific findings – again, you can scour Among the Truthers in vain for its scientific merit. Here is an example of how Kay’s book is discussed by the author of The Enigma of Reason: “The journalist Jonathan Kay interviewed many conspiracy theorists in the writing of Among the Truthers (people who do not accept the standard account of 9/11). He found people suffering from ‘debilitating emotional agony’ caused by ‘sudden exposure to the magnitude of evil threatening the world’ (p.26). If reasoning is supposed to make people feel good, it fails abysmally” (see page 246). Sounds reasonable enough, right? In my own interviews with 9/11 Truth activists, I found similar results, so perhaps I can provide Kay with external validation; however, unlike Kay and his hopes for his readers, my interviewees were convinced by claims like Richard Gage’s about the collapse of WTC 7. My research participants reported intense feelings of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and disturbances in their social lives as a result of their conversion experience when they realized that WTC 7 was the “smoking gun” indicating that “the official story of 9/11 is a lie.”
My own and Kay’s findings are supported by one group of academic researchers interested in how beliefs in conspiracy theories are formed psychologically. According to that study, part of the formula for burgeoning beliefs in conspiracy theories is, allegedly, “a worldview comprising a belief in the lack of benevolence of the world, a belief in a dangerous social world, feelings of isolation from society, normlessness and powerlessness, and perceptions of a lack of randomness in the world.” This is accompanied by a sense that “there is reason or cause behind events” rather than stochasticism, what Michael Parenti explains as the conventional worldview regarding significant historical events, i.e. “that things occur by chance; stuff just happens, as innocently befuddled leaders grope about unburdened by any hidden agenda.” In 2012, a team of psychologists, who continue to this day to bear fruits as inquisitors of conspiracy theorists, cited Kay’s 2011 book as the only source in reference to the 9/11 Truth movement. In that 2012 article, titled “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” we are led to believe that there exists a “monological belief system” that guides the logic of “conspiracy theorists.” This belief system is allegedly or apparently “a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network.” This is kind of like explaining away all countervailing evidence and reasons for the non-existence of Santa Claus and focusing only on “proof” of his existence. What my own research tells me is that if there is a monological belief system, it is rooted in empirical claims about factually verifiable and falsifiable anomalies in official, authorized accounts of significant historical events, like that of the freefall collapse of WTC 7. Do researchers ever address this?
The same scientists, sans one, who authored “Dead and Alive,” which currently has amassed 664 citations, produced an article in 2014 titled, “’What About Building 7?’ A Social Psychological Study of Online Discussion of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories’.” And once again, they cite Jonathan Kay’s 2011 book as a trustworthy source when they assert as a matter of fact this: “The 9/11 Truth Movement is, by and large, a movement of converts — most ‘Truthers,’ at some point, became convinced that their previous belief in the official story was wrong.” Sure, it’s reasonable to assume that most people who ended up doubting, questioning, or outright contradicting the official story of 9/11 first believed it, but my experience with the movement (discussed in my doctoral work) indicates their statement to be more representative of younger as compared to older members. Many older members I interviewed had already questioned the official accounts of JFK, the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc., and so were skeptical of the official accounts of 9/11 to begin with —there were also many people I interviewed who said they were skeptical from from the outset due to their disbelief in explanations about how or why the Twin Towers exploded, how a hijacker’s intact passport was found at Ground Zero, and about why there was no obvious visual evidence of an airliner at the alleged crash sites of Shanksville, PA, or the Pentagon (to note, those were beliefs reported to me, not necessarily my own). Jonathan Kay nowhere in his book demonstrates through evidence-based research the statement made in the quote above. Curious parties might check, but I suspect reviewers, editors, and readers of this research just take the authors at their word. Besides, who has time to check citations and factual claims therein anyway, right?
The research team that wrote “’What About Building 7’?” did cite one of David Ray Griffin’s 11 books on 9/11 Truth. Griffin is a person Jonathan Kay considers to be a mainstay of the 9/11 Truth movement, and so it might behoove serious academic researchers to do their due diligence when conducting their literature review. However, David Ray Griffin’s 2004 book, A New Pearl Harbor, was essentially the only citation out of all of the relevant 9/11 Truth publications. Maybe due to their lack of curiosity or possibly out of sheer ignorance they did not cite Griffin’s 2010 book, The Mysterious Collapse of World Trade Center 7. In either case, I would think that scientists seriously interested in a given topic would cite relevant literature on it, but perhaps psychologists who study conspiracy theorists are just generally reluctant to directly address empirical claims about possible conspiracies due to some sort of conspiracy theory phobia.
Teams of academic researchers in the social and behavioral sciences are seldom interested in investigating the empirical, evidence-based claims made by “conspiracy theorists” because, after all, those claims are mere “conspiracy theories” and not worthy of serious attention. Concerningly, in the article, “’What About Building 7’,” these researchers note that in their online discussions, the “conspiracy theorists” stated that they disliked the abuse that the label generates, yet the authors employ the label routinely in their article. To conduct their study, these researchers had to get approval from an Institutional Review Board whose job it is to protect the interests and well-being of human subjects, yet they issue the very insult their subjects lamented. This pejorative label is used flippantly by several other researchers in the network of peer-reviewed papers that cite each other, and so this creates a cause of concern for the treatment of human subjects by social and behavioral scientists. I will address that inequity in the next part of this essay series, but here, consider what Kevin Barret has pointed out: The authors dutifully noted that it was in the end the “conspiracy theorists” who tended to use more rational lines of discourse when engaging with people who subscribe to the conventional wisdom of the 9/11 narrative. Yet, the researchers were not curious enough to ask themselves, “yeah, what about Building 7!?”
Institutional Politics of the Conspiracy Label: Corporate Press
Now, let us return to the case of Popular Mechanics as a representative of how the corporate press functions in the multi-institutional politics of 9/11 Truth. In this corner of anti-conspiracy discourse, we see cases of those who do directly interrogate empirical claims, and we see a similar pattern that exists elsewhere by those who socially construct the non-problematicity of 9/11 Truth. Cornerstones of that strategy are the tactics of ignoring and denial of claims. This occurred most notably between the 1st and 2nd editions of Popular Mechanics’ thoroughly debunked book, Debunking 9/11 Myths, which received the highest acclaim for how to debunk 9/11 “conspiracy theories” from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and *Skeptic Magazine*’s Michael Shermer. Popular Mechanics’ books are considered to be so problematic to the 9/11 Truth movement, that one of their most active social movement organizations, Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, is campaigning to raise funds to publish another direct refutation to Popular Mechanics’ book, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand up to the Facts.
The team behind Debunking 9/11 Myths also cited and discussed Griffin’s book, A New Pearl Harbor, yet it was given scant treatment because, apparently, it is merely a conspiracy theory and allegedly a source of the 9/11 myths they set out to debunk. Between 2006 and 2011, the team at Popular Mechanics updated the new edition of their book with “five new myths involving the collapse of 7 World Trade Center,” but they failed to notify their readers of Griffin’s 2010 book on Building 7, and in doing so they failed to address the existing literature. This is a basic, fundamental procedure one learns even at the undergraduate level when studying any science in a collegiate setting. It’s called a literature review. In chapter 4 of my dissertation, I provide a lengthy analysis of this, showing that there are far too many errors, contradictions, inconsistencies, and rhetorical fallacies in the anti-conspiracy discourse of the 9/11 Truth movement’s detractors to believe that journalists like Jonathan Kay, scientists and professors like the research teams discussed above, and corporate media organizations like Popular Mechanics engage in honest or impartial analyses.
Institutional Politics of the Conspiracy Label: COMPACT
In academia, there are edited handbooks produced by a selection of leading scholars in any given field or even sub-discipline of research – sometimes there are even competing handbooks that house countervailing lines of research rooted in alternative paradigmatic perspectives. The dominant paradigm of research on conspiracy theorists and their beliefs is probably found in the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories, edited by Michael Butter and Peter Knight. I referenced that handbook and its editors toward the end of my previous essay in this series. I also referenced the organization both men help operate, COMPACT – the Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories, which is an “interdisciplinary and international network to provide a comprehensive understanding of conspiracy theories.” … in order to combat and counteract the “dangers” of conspiracy theories (Karen Douglas, one of the authors of both psychology articles discussed above, is also a member). Currently, there are several dozen academic researchers whose livelihoods are at least partially funded by government grants given to them so that they can continue to produce anti-conspiracy discourse. These academics work in concert with the various journalists, pundits, public intellectuals, independent researchers, government agencies, and others who seek to combat the purported threat that conspiracy theories pose to the officialdom of authorized accounts of historically significant events. That all factors into the multi-institutional politics of 9/11 Truth.
There are vast networks of institutions (e.g., academia, media, government, corporations) and organizations (COMPACT, Popular Mechanics, CISA/DHS, etc.) that mutually reinforce each other in defending officialdom. For months after September 11, 2001, corporate-owned media used language and imagery to promote the politics of fear that bolstered the War on Terror. The exploding Twin Towers in Manhattan often served as a visual backdrop against which “terrorists” and “terrorism” were constantly discussed. Within minutes, people like L. Paul Bremer, who was interviewed live on NBC and who named Usama bin Laden as the primary suspect, initiated a cascading activation of stories that began to roll down from elite networks within and between government, corporations, military, and media institutions, and eventually, the official narrative of 9/11 took root in the public imagination. Many people debated what happened and why, but a tipping point was set in place that – if crossed – would conjure the conspiracy label. 9/11 Truth is now automatically considered too far out of bounds of rational, polite public discourse whereas those who defend the official, authorized accounts of 9/11 seem to get a free pass when they make even the most obvious and rudimentary errors in their arguments. That is what the conspiracy label does, and I suspect the network of propagandists who continue to weaponize it know this. How could they not?
Understandably, journalists, psychologists, and social scientists are interested in what goes on in the mind and how people communicate and behave rather than taking interest in the nature of physics and geopolitics. Having undergone training in environmental sociology during my concurrent independent studying of the literature on “conspiracy theorists,” I was being schooled in ways to analyze both the empirical reality of the thing being claimed to be a problem (e.g., oil spills and climate change) along with how those claims were framed, who the various stakeholders were, and what the interests of those groups might be. Two lessons I learned at that time are relevant: 1. There are powerful corporate-state interest groups that will attempt to hide, distort, and counteract claims that run contrary to their interests, even if it means that the public can or will be harmed. 2. If I failed to do an adequate review of the existing literature, my graduate faculty would reprimand me embarrassingly in front of my classmates and drastically lower my grades (thanks be to the gods of academia for their grace and forgiveness). This was part of my training in the sciences, and it was practical insofar that I was being groomed to publish in academic peer-reviewed journals. Why, then, when I would read journal articles on “9/11 Truthers” there always seemed to be missing content fully elaborating on the strongest empirical claims? I concluded that there was a willful ignorance of or an unwillingness to honestly address claims about the physics and geopolitical strategy made by so-called “conspiracy theorists.” I.e., the researchers, reviewers, editors, and publishers were, knowingly or not, engaged in consciousness-lowering activities by ignoring or denying the legitimacy of the central claims made by professionals and experts within the 9/11 Truth movement.
For example, Jonathan Kay, who has multiple degrees, including a Master’s degree in metallurgical engineering, takes zero steps toward debunking specific claims made about the collapse of WTC 7. Even though he says the strongest claim made by the 9/11 Truth movement are those regarding the collapse of WTC 7, readers are apparently just supposed to dismiss claims about it as expressions or symptoms of what he repeatedly calls “conspiracism.” From my own research with the 9/11 Truth movement, several individuals and organizations claim that this is the key piece of evidence that shows the official story is incomplete, at best., or totally false at worst. Kay’s book, then, is a consciousness-lowering piece of propaganda that spreads agnotology of WTC 7’s collapse. This is akin to “how certain environmental conditions become defined as non-problematic through consciousness-lowering activities” by corporate interest groups (see Dunlap, 2003, p. 351). Again, data from my interviews suggest that for many converts to the 9/11 Truth movement, it was exposure to anomalies in the official story, like WTC 7, that then cascaded into “emotional agony,” as Kay observed, and a sense of anomie as observed by the research referenced above. Many people I interviewed attempted to debunk what they had learned, and others said they wished they never knew. To me, this suggests empiricism, not reason, is at the heart of (at least some) beliefs in what are considered “conspiracy theories.”
In a speech titled “Lies, War, and Empire,” Michael Parenti discusses the nature of objectivity in the context of propaganda and the dominant paradigm. Often, he says, what passes for objectivity is merely consensus opinion given a free float down the mainstream channels of public discourse. Agreements and disagreements become contained within acceptable boundaries of public speech and dialogues. These boundaries are maintained by constant bombardments of propaganda that provide fodder for what is to be said and cognitive trip wires for where we are not to tread in our speech acts. Despite relentless public relations campaigns produced and proffered by professional pundits and experts in strategic communications, sectors of the public will often begin to question the veracity of one or another accounts of ongoing and/or historical events. As Parenti pointed out of Nazi Germany, even though the propaganda ministers assured the public they were, in fact, winning the war, the public could hear and see for themselves that the battles were inching ever closer to their home towns within their homeland. At one point in his speech, Parenti states that “we know truth exists because we know liars exist. We may not always know when our leaders are lying to us, but after a while, we catch on.” There might be a small group of adults who still truly believe in the literal existence of Santa Claus, but it’s safe to say that by ten years of age or so, the vast majority of children eventually catch on to the myth, legend, and lie perpetrated and perpetuated by knowing adults; in many cases, those same children go on to become part of the Santa conspiracy themselves.
This is the social problem raised by the spread of conspiracy theories: People start to ask themselves, “If we were lied to about that, what else have they been lying about?” The alleged danger is not that an individual will continue to question their own reality but that these patterns of questioning might become endemic, shattering the public’s faith in society’s central institutions. The term we environmental sociologists use to describe the public’s loss of trust in society’s central social institutions is called recreancy. So, in part, the conspiracy label is used as a cognitive electric fence: Only bad boys and girls question the officialdom of the story of Santa, and they might end up on the naughty list if they continue to spread rumors on the playground. But, some people just can’t help but to look at what’s behind closed doors (especially when told not to look). This has been, for quite a while, the reasoning behind campaigns of inducing resistance to conspiracy theories via ideological inoculation strategies – by the way, if you missed it above, Jonathan Kay “believe[s] a certain very specific kind of education can be helpful for inoculating young minds against conspiracy theories.” Organizations like Popular Mechanics and COMPACT help to produce literature and pamphlets designed to inform schools, news organizations, government agencies, and the general public not only about what is off limits to think and ask questions about but how to relegate transgressors back into the safety of the school playground where everyone knows Santa is real.
END of Part II