On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 members of the Islamic terrorist group al Qaeda hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center, and another into the Pentagon. A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against the terrorists. Nearly 3,000 lives were claimed, and many others were changed forever in attacks that shocked the American public.
Four years later in April 2005, a 21-year-old aspiring filmmaker, Daniel Avery, falsely claimed in the film “Loose Change,” that the U.S. government helped carry out the attacks. In November of that year, Avery released another edition of the film titled: “Loose Change: Second Edition,” with the help of his friend Korey Rowe, 23, who had served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another conspiracy theorist, Jason Bermas, 26, who was named a researcher on the film because he was reportedly obsessed with alternative theories about what happened on 9/11 and had spent a lengthy amount of time gathering documents and footage from online forums. It cost $2,000 to make the first version of the film, and $6,000 to create the second.
The trio, who were all from Oneonta, New York, began mailing people copies of the 90-minute film on DVD after it came out, but it wasn’t until they posted the film on Google video that it went viral. Up until then, conspiracy theorists had remained on the fringes of society, but through ‘Loose Change,” one of the first viral conspiracy theories online, it became acceptable to openly believe a conspiracy. The film's impact continues to be felt, more than a decade later.
The film, which was made solely using archival footage, garnered 10 million views in the first few months that it was released, unheard of for an amateur film at the time.
“We beat the [Stephen] Colbert speech,” Bermas, 26, told Vanity Fair in 2006. “The viral videos, we dominate them.”
“Loose Change” presents a plethora of scenarios about 9/11, but not many answers — including the ideas that Flight 93 was shot down by a military missile, the collapse of the World Trade Centers may have been a controlled demolition, and that the government allegedly ignored warnings about the attacks long beforehand, among many others.
In 2006, 20,000 people a day were visiting the official “Loose Change” website, and more than 50,000 people had placed orders for the DVD. While today a person can search YouTube and find hundreds of amateur conspiracy theories with thousands of views, in 2005, “Loose Change” was one of a kind.
Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay, who wrote “Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground,” said part of the reason for the film's huge success was that videos that took thousands of dollars to make in the late ‘90s and early 2000s were automatically perceived as “authoritative.”
“When ‘Loose Change’ came out, it was a game-changer because here you had a bunch of fairly young people who took the conspiracist culture of the internet and said, ‘let's turn this into something that looks like fairly slick entertainment,’” Jay explained. “And because it's entertaining, people are going to watch it. And because it's a slick video, people are going to think it's authoritative. They're not going to think it's some weird guy who's on the street corner just handing them some amateur hour leaflet. Which is how people generally see conspiracy theories, right?”
Kay also said the film had all the makings of a movie that would keep a viewer engaged, except in this case, the event people were watching was real.
“It was like a real life horror action movie,” Kay said. “When you see action movies, a big theme of it is monsters destroying cities or the White House being destroyed. If you look at ‘Loose Change,’ they had all this publicly available footage that looks like it's out of an action movie. You already have a big part of your challenge that's been fulfilled, because the underlying subject matter is so horrible and spectacular that it keeps the viewers' interest. So, they also capitalized on the fact that just people like violent action movies and ‘Loose Change’ in a way was a violent action movie.”
In a study conducted by Chapman University in 2016, it was discovered that half of all Americans believe the government is concealing information about the 9/11 attacks. Many of these people have become known as “9/11 Truthers.” Even celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Rosie O’Donnell, have all expressed skepticism about the official recounting of the Sept. 11 attacks. An official report of what happened, the 9/11 Commission Report, was released in 2004.
"We found clear evidence that the United States is a strongly conspiratorial society," said lead author of the study, Christopher Bader, a sociologist at Chapman University in California.
The proliferation of conspiracy theories continues in society today, with new theories like that of PizzaGate and QAnon popping up regularly. As falsehoods catch fire, so too do the beliefs that legitimate issues— like COVID-19— are in fact hoaxes.
Sander Van Der Linden, a Professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge, said there are several reasons why conspiracies become popular and part of it is people desiring to make sense of events happening around them.
“[Conspiracy theories] feed into what we call existential needs, so our anxieties and worries about death and the state of affairs and the world and the future. And so whenever they tie into that it helps calm people down, it gives people a sense of agency and control over their lives, a simple narrative to hold on to a simple explanation for otherwise seemingly complex and random events,” Van Der Linden told Inside Edition Digital.
Van Der Linden also said that the communities built on conspiracy theories also fulfill a relational need for many people. Online conspiracy theorists are able to form communities with like-minded individuals and begin to feel “less marginalized.”
Often, conspiracy theories are highly politicized and the people who share them who don’t actually believe them, but they do so because they align with a person’s political worldview, according to experts. Van Der Linden agrees.
“If there's a conspiracy, let's say that you're on the right, if there's a conspiracy about the left, even though it might sound ridiculous, it's another opportunity to share information that's congruent with your perception of the world,” Van Der Linden said. “People tend to share conspiracy theories with the political angle to discredit other political groups, even when they might not fully embrace the conspiracy.”
When it comes to 9/11 truthers, there are left and right-wing versions of the conspiracy, according to Kay.
“There was a left-wing 9/11 conspiracy theory thing where it's like, ‘Oh, this is all about oil and creating an excuse to go attack Iraq and Afghanistan,’” Kay said. “But there was also a right-wing version of the conspiracy theory, which is that, ‘Oh, this is going to be an excuse to create a world government headed by the United Nations and take away all our guns and all our freedom and stuff.’”
Kay said “Loose Change” really “raised the bar” for the level of multimedia production someone needed to advance a conspiracy theory.
“It marked the time when conspiracism really entered the realm of video on a grassroots crowdsourced level,” Kay said.
The Obama birther conspiracy videos were as a result of what people had seen done with “Loose Change,” Kay said. If the documentary came out today, with all the access that we have to social media now, Kay doesn’t believe it would have made the impact that it did.
“No one has a 90-minute attention span anymore.”