On November 2, 2011, Ryan Mackey published his latest paper, “The Great Internet Conspiracy; The Role of Technology and Social Media in the 9/11 Truth Movement.” Mackey’s paper is a serious work, one that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the events of 9/11, whether or not the factual story as investigated and reported by the 9/11 Commission, the Congressional Joint Inquiry before it, or the National Institute of Standards and Technology (including FAQ) after it, is believed. In this article I will place Mackey’s paper in context and summarize important points for future researchers.
Two important observations need to be made before we can proceed. First, Mackey’s work can be replicated. He set forth a methodology and, rigorously, provided the reader the scope and limitations of his work. Second, by establishing a body of work that addresses “The Role of Technology and Social Media in the 9/11 Truth Movement,” he has placed a burden of proof on those who disagree with him. It is not enough, any more, to simply disagree. The obligation is to state that disagreement in specific, logical terms and also articulate a different thesis, one with a methodology that can be replicated and a statement of scope and limitations. Serious researchers will take those necessary steps. Others can simply be ignored.
With those preliminaries out of the way let’s take a look at Mackey’s work. We begin with previous work by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan in The Eleventh Day. It should be pointed out that Summers and Swan, themselves, drew on Mackey’s earlier work, “On Debunking 9/11 Debunking.”
The Eleventh Day
Summers and Swan (p. 93-4) recount the actions of Dave Rostcheck and the results of their interview with him. According to the authors, Rostcheck was one of the first to spread the word about 9/11 on the Internet. “The electronic murmur that was to reach millions seems to have begun not six hours after the first strike on the Trade Center. Boston-based David Rostcheck,…had spent the morning watching the drama on television. ‘Eventually,’ he recalled, ‘I went to see what people were saying on line.’….’Is it just me…'”
When formally interviewed, Rostcheck described “[an] American society bifurcated into two groups—-call them America 1 and America 2.”….America 2…is what I’ll roughly classify as the Internet domain…its concepts originate on the Internet….after September 11…a whole group of Americans found themselves abruptly dumped into America 2 . . . the population of America 2 became huge—likely tens of millions.”
And that is our first metric needed to discuss Mackey’s current paper. We should also note that the Rostcheck typology ignored the reality that the Internet transcends national boundaries. We can extend Rostcheck’s description to be ‘world 1’ and ‘world 2’ and, extrapolate his figure of ‘tens of millions’ to ‘hundreds of millions.’ So what does Mackey say about numbers?
Mackey begins, in the same vein as Rostcheck, by describing “How I Got Involved.” “My first brush with the Truth Movement, unsurprisingly, was over the Internet. The date was late 2005.”
[A couple of editorial comments are needed at this point. First, the word ‘Internet,’ according to usage of the word by both Summers and Swan and Mackey, has been elevated to capital letter status. Second, Mackey elevates the words ‘Truth Movement’ to capital letter status. Summers and Swan do not use the term; it is not even in their index. ]
By 2006, Mackey was “posting on a more diverse Internet discussion forum, namely the one hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).” In Mackey’s estimation, “there is perhaps no better place on the Internet to gain some perspective on the crazy things that some people accept and attempt to popularize.” Based, in part on a focus on the World Trade Center and an Internet-based presentation called “Loose Change,” Mackey found himself drawn into an “us” versus “them” mentality, “Truther” versus “Debunker.” Mackey went on to say, “for some reason I couldn’t clearly identify, I found myself attracted to the argument. I was given the label of “debunker” in short order….Thus began a long association with the Truth Movement.”
Implicit in Mackey’s paper is a belief that the association was, and is, worth continuing, and that fact-based arguments, well-presented, will prevail. He has been careful not to burn his bridges unnecessarily and more often than not leaves open lines of communications. This trait, alone, separates Mackey from a good portion of his fellow “debunkers” and certainly sets him apart from the vast majority of “truthers,” at least those that find their way to the JREF forum.
My own inclination is to also not burn bridges and I’ve generally kept the line of communication open to those from the truth community that have approached me. Although my truth community sample size is quite small it does allow me the observation that serious voices in the movement stay away from JREF. Those who enter the forum from a ‘truth’ perspective are near universally what are referred to as ‘trolls.’ Certainly, none enter in their true persona. Given that my personal sample size is small, what about the numbers?
Earlier, we extrapolated Rostcheck’s “tens of millions” estimate to be “hundreds of millions” world wide. While that may have been so in the immediate aftermath it is quite certain that the numbers are far smaller than that, but how small? Summers and Swan (p. 94) reported, “Four years ago  it was said that almost a million Web pages were devoted to “9/11 conspiracy.” As of early 2011, entering the phrase “9/11 conspiracy” into the Google search engine returned almost seven million hits.”
From a different perspective, Mackey reported that over the years he had received emails numbering “in the hundreds.” Most of those were from those who had become “too irritated by Truthers…” Of those hundreds, according to Mackey, “there were the Truthers themselves, numbering about forty, who wished only to argue with me on a private channel in addition to the public debate.” He also reported that he heard from a few people who were convinced by his efforts, “but only a very few – around ten.”
So, the number is somewhere in between the “hundreds,” including forty Truthers, who have emailed Mackey and the 3o+ million Google returns for the search term “9/11 Conspiracy.” Before we take a look at that using Mackey’s own research let’s look at his scope and limitations.
Mackey constructed a list of 30 “conspiracy theories.” He drew on a list maintained in Wikipedia, but argued that it had structural issues. His revised listed was based on the proposition that “if there is someway to predict popularity [of a given theory], we should be able to approach the problem empirically using past conspiracy theories as a guide.”
Mackey added a simple, subjective method of grouping theories. “One idea is to group conspiracy theories according to how plausible they are. It seems reasonable to expect that, the crazier the idea, the less likely people will be to believe it or to repeat it. This is something we should be able to check.”
Mackey’s approach was grounded in the work of David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That effect established that “for any given population, a certain percentage will under-perform the rest so badly that they lack any way to critique their achievement, being effectively illiterate in a certain behavior.” Those are strong words, especially when used by Mackey to relate to the world of conspiracy theories: “This renders them impervious to any corrective efforts or education and leaves the door wide open for self-delusion. The Dunning-Kruger mechanism readily explains many of the so-called ‘experts’ that stand behind (and often profit from) conspiracy theories in the wild, as well as their frustrating obstinacy when faced with reality.”
Mackey has thrown the gauntlet here, mincing no words, as he lays out the thesis for a challenge to conspiracy theorists in general, not just those concerned with 9/11. He has, as readers will be quick to perceive, also thrown a gauntlet that can be picked up and thrown back at him. Anyone inclined to do so, however, must have their own methodology and research in good order. The Mackey gambit dominates the chessboard. It will require a depth of fact-based knowledge not yet seen in the truth community to counter the gambit effectively, if at all.
Mackey freely states the limits of his research. “Even constructing a list of popular conspiracy theories is problematic.” Further, “To measure popularity we can try the naive but time-honored “Google-Fight” method…,” an approach hinted at by Summers and Swan. Concerning plausibility, Mackey found that “much harder,” and stuck to a simple ‘high,’ ‘moderate,’ ‘low’ approach, which Mackey readily states is “subject to bias.”
We ask no more of a researcher than that he tell us what he did, why he did it, and the limitations. Mackey has met the test. But can his work be replicated, and what did he find?
Google, Not Everyone’s Search Engine
I replicated Mackey’s popularity findings using both Firefox and Google Chrome. There are occasional differences in results from the two browsers. Those differences are on the margin with some exceptions that need to be noted.
I could not replicate Mackey’s anomaly concerning the ‘Armenian International Conspiracy’ category. I got results in the 800-900 range, depending on browser. In part, the problem may be because Mackey doubles the word ‘conspiracy’ in both that category and the Holocaust category.
He has a repetition of the word ‘conspiracy’ in both cases since his instructions are that the words “conspiracy theory” need to be added to each category when the search is executed. I could not replicate Mackey’s result for ‘Holocaust’ until I deleted the extraneous word, for instance.
Interestingly, I could not replicate Mackey’s results for the ‘Falklands War’ category. Using both browsers I returned results in the 5300 range. That would place the ‘Falklands War’ among Mackey’s “Superconspiracies” category, increasing his count to six. However, since the probability of the Falklands category is rated “low” the addition has no practical effect on his analysis and I did not explore why that category might be so apparently popular.
I doubt there will be much quibble with Mackey’s category list. There are other reasonable candidates–POW/MIA, Tonkin Gulf, Egypt Air–for example. But his list of 30 should reasonably suit most researchers. His ‘plausibility’ ratings, however, may be a different matter entirely.
Objective/Subjective, It’s In The Readers Eye
Mackey’s plausibility rankings are clearly subject to a different interpretation. Others who may disagree, even significantly, will need to replicate Mackey’s work using their own subjectivity to make the rankings. My estimate is that the total list will be accepted at face value, with one exception. The truth movement will judge the plausibility of the “9/11” entry to be ‘high.’
Mackey has rated just four other entries as ‘high,’ — ‘Reichstag Fire’, ‘1999 Russian Bombings’, 2002 Venezuelan Coup’, and ‘Vince Foster.’ None of the four, however, has a high popularity. So, changing the ‘9/11’ rating to ‘high’ leaves it in Mackey’s “superconspiracies” group, but at a different level of plausibility.
Therefore, the change in plausibility ranking may not make a difference. Over the years, I have come to understand that once individual cases in a population under study get to plus/minus two or more standard deviations away from the norm the extreme cases merge together and become a universe of their own. Based on that premise, the ‘9/11’ entry is a member of the ‘superconspiracies’ population regardless of plausibility. Moreover, that implies that we don’t even need Mackey’s plausiblity ratings to establish the membership of the ‘superconpiracies.’ Popularity alone does the trick.
Mackey’s construct resulted in 5 out of 30 (one in six) entries being a superconspiracy. Be changing the plausibility rating for “9/11” that low plausiblity/high popularity number becomes 4 out of 30 (one in 7.5). If the ‘Falklands’ is included we are back to one in six.
Considering the ‘high’ plausibility category, including 9/11, the figure for that category is 1 out of 5. We get the same order of magnitude regardless of which plausibility rating is given to 9/11.
Mackey’s own analysis supports that supposition, at least implicitly, if not explicitly. Mackey used the half-logistic distribution. Such a distribution depends solely on the absolute value of the popularity value. And properly so, given that there can only be positive values. Negative popularity (dislike) is not measurable using a Google search.
Regardless of the plausibility rating for 9/11, and how we get to the next level of Mackey’s work, the analysis thereafter is the same. And Mackey tells us that we are in sync with him, “plausibility simply doesn’t matter.” “Superconspiracies,” Mackey informs us, “are radically different, being about five standard deviations removed from all the rest.” And in my own experience, once a researcher gets to five standard deviations, plus or minus, all bets are off and we dealing with a new population, not part of the original construct.
Mackey calls the superconspiracies the “rare superstars that grow beyond the ordinary.” Moreover, he states that this is not a random state of affairs, “something drives them.” “The 9/11 conspiracy theories are indeed special…what we need to do is find out what happened.”
Old School vs New School, Activists vs Theorists
Mackey’s main point is that the truth movement is now largely the domain of activists. Theorists need not apply. Activism, in and of itself, is amorphous and tends to the fad of the day approach to protest, one that seeks popularity not a theoretical construct. In Mackey’s words, “the Truth Movement seems to have started much as any other conspiracy theory. For a while it was merely another fringe idea, circulated and traded among a counter-culture more interested in marketing their ideas to fellow conspiracists than winning converts from the general public.” He then suggested a “second stage…a much louder, more confrontational approach aimed at involving as many people as possible.
Mackey cites a 2006 study by “the popular alternative-thinking discussion forum Above Top Secret” which found that “the Truth Movement just wasn’t that popular.” One forum organizer noted that “the Truth Movement was actually an annoyance to most of the membership, ‘a very loud and irritating minority. But they do not represent the mind-space of people who consider ‘conspiracy theories.’ They are activists, not theorists.'”
Mackey’s take on all that was succinct and explicit. “So that is it in a nutshell — there we have the secret ingredient that distinguished the 9/11 conspiracy theories from other.” It had “mutated…into an aggressive strain of misguided activism.” In reference back to his own methodology, Mackey wrote, “I was not measuring an increase in the number of conspiracy theorists…Instead, I was only finding the volume and rancor of arguments between a few noisy Truthers and everyone else.”
Mackey had found that the Above Top Secret poll held up after four years and that left the “question of WHY. What made this conspiracy theory, and only this conspiracy theory, turn activist and assault the main stream? Why hadn’t this happened before?”
It’s All About Timing
Mackey compared and contrasted the Oklahoma City Bombing wondering why that ‘conspiracy’ did not take off. Scale alone is not a factor, he argued. If so, he mused, ‘why [did] the Truth Movement lay relatively dormant until mid-2005.” He again turned to the Above Top Secret poll (2011 version). “A majority of supporters grew interested in the 9/11 conspiracy theories years later, long after the shock had begun to fade.”
Mackey continued, “The most obvious reason for the difference is in the political climate.” He then dismissed that speculation, “if true, it suggests that the Truth Movement — and conspiracy theories in general — tend to be left-leaning…Fundamentally this doesn’t make sense.” He then crafted a classic Mackey synthesis, one that summarizes, sensationalizes, and stimulates controversy.
The Lazy Eight Ranch, Telling It Like It Is
“Conspiracy theories, being based on delusion, should have no political affiliation. Their proponents are so far from the political center that they are neither left nor right, but in the strange intersection of left and right in the paranoid realm of anarchy.” And that is exactly the realm that we discussed earlier when examining Mackey’s methodology and quantitative analysis. The superconspiracies reside at the ‘Lazy Eight’ Ranch. Its brand is the infinity symbol, one engineering students, at least in my day, were fond of calling the ‘Lazy Eight’ Ranch.
Mackey then hammered the point home to distinguish anti-war activists from ‘Truthers.’ “[N]o anti-war activist I spoke to became a Truther, not a single one. Most of the activists that I knew detested the Truthers, and for good reason. They did not want their philosophically sound and perfectly legitimate political views to be tainted by association with crazy people.”
Mackey was on a roll here and continued, “Truthers, on the other hand, tried to attach temselves to mainstream protest marches…as a way to pad their numbers, but they were rarely welcome.” Witness currently, for example, the attempt by the truth community to latch on to the Occupy Wall Street movement to further the publicity of their ‘poster’ cause, Building Seven.
Returning to the political climate theme, Mackey then argued that “the Truth Movement should have evaporated completely on November 4th, 2008. But it did not.” Mackey then continued his analysis by writing, “we have not adequately described this activist group of conspiracy theorists.” He argued that political events did make the public willing to lisiten the the truth community, but “listening falls short of believing in them…” In Mackey’s words, “I am not willing to blame the rise of the Truth Movement on an overreaction by the left. I trust them to be smarter than that, and besides, I didn’t see it happen…The people pushing the Truth Movement were cut from an entirely different cloth.”
A Common Frame of Reference
Mackey takes the reader through the Alex Jones era — “9/11 was just another phase to him….It simply wasn’t his core interest or his best seller,” and his casual relationship with ‘Loose Change,’ “the most influential Truth Movement video of them all.” But none of that fueled the truth movement like the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. “It’s release…corresponds to the first significant leap in popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories.” It became the common frame of reference.
Mackey describes the situation as equivalent to the “fire triangle,” the inter-relationship of three ingredients, heat, a fuel source and a point of ignition. The heat was generated by the activist members of the conspiracy crowd. The fuel source was a “prepared and reactive public,” one seeking information, such as the release of the Commission’s report. The spark, according to Mackey, was “Internet technology.”
If It’s Not on YouTube, It’s Not Real
The arrival on the scene of Google Video and YouTube, who released “publicly usable versions in April and May of 2005,” was the spark. Ready and waiting for the ignition was the “Truth Movement phenomenon, “Loose Change.”” According to Mackey, “The video was hailed as ‘the first Internet blockbuster’ of any kind, a novelty sufficient on its own to push “Loose Change” into the mainstream.”
And that resulted in the meteoric rise and fall of the 9/11 conspiracy movement. It peaked in 2006 and has waned consistently ever since, with expected spikes each September. The Commission Report was released in July 2004, “Loose Change” in May 2005. The public consumption of the two fueled the movement to the five year anniversary in September 2006. Things have not quite been the same since, despite periodic attempts to return to the glory days, mostly the release of subsequent editions of “Loose Change.”
Mackey’s own involvement is traced to that same period, predictably enough. It is logical that interest in the subject transcended activist tendencies and that there would be a counter voice in the fuel source — public interest. According to Mackey, “This time period, for mid-2005 through 2006, is also precisely the period when I began to get involved…it took a few months…before I was sufficiently angered to fight back. In those few months I saw the Truth Movement go from just another crazy idea to a potential crisis.”
The 9/11 conspiracy was “simply the first conspiracy theory to go viral.”
The Party Is Over
In Mackey’s analysis we now have the 9/11 Conspiracy as unique from each and every other conspiracy, super or not. No other such theory had gone viral. Going viral, however, signals the end of things. My own work on Chaos Theory informs us here. Nature does not long tolerate chaotic, viral, conditions. Chaos is deterministic and self-organizing. Nature polices itself. In the heady hey days of 2006 no one in the Truth Movement, of course, saw that. They perceived, and still perceive, unlimited growth. That naivete’ tinges the modest efforts of the truth community even today.
The hand writing was on the wall at the sixth anniversary of 9/11 in 2007. In Mackey’s words, “the sixth anniversary proved to be an unqualified catastrophe….The party was over.”
Mackey then posed an interesting analytical question. “So why did the Truth Movement stall so quickly?” He answered, “in simplest terms, the Truth Movement had misunderstood the conversation with the public,” its fuel source. The fire triangle as described by Mackey no longer existed.
The First Great Internet Conspiracy, Come and Gone
Mackey has an interesting and quite readable discussion of the Internet and its allure. He informs us that “Even though we’ve long expected it, the first Great Internet Conspiracy has come and gone without being recognized.
In his dissertation Mackey argues that “only a specific word matters to the Truth Movement, not the actual meaning. However, the public consensus, the fuel source Mackey discussed earlier, has turned in a different direction. “Public consensus is rather strong. And in the scientific world consensus is total – there have been many hundreds of professional science and engineering articles about the attacks and their effects, and not a single one supports any conspiracy theory. As a result, in the actual world of science, the Truth Movement doesn’t exist at all.”
It does not exist in my world, either, even though I have generally left the lines of communication open to those from the truth community who have sought me out. One of the first articles I wrote on my website provided “A Framework for Analysis.” I argued that any comprehensive assessment of the events of 9/11 had to be based on a body of pre-event, event, and post-event information. I constructed the framework as a neutral construct useful to anyone regardless of his or her thesis. I state that there was an “event” on 9-11. I called the “event” a terrorist attack. Anyone is free to use that neutral construct to argue that a different event occurred. No one has done so. I perceive that Kevin Ryan, who I believe to be earnest in his endeavors, has and is attempting to build a pre-event body of information. He understands the need to do so but has boxed himself in to multiple analytic box canyons from which the only escape is to retrace his steps and start over. I remain hopeful that he will do so.
There have been occasional attempts by the truth movement to cloak its work with some degree of respectability, the establishment of a journal, for example. The movement understands very well the concept of peer review and painfully tried to establish its bona fides that way using a vanity publication house as a base. Both the journal and the peer review have come up short.
More recently, the truth movement held inconclusive “hearings” in Toronto which simply plowed old ground and has failed to report out. I was invited by Kevin Ryan to attend Toronto to defend the work of the Commission. I saw no utility in attending but did place in evidence, for the record through Ryan, the Commission Report, Team 8 Staff Statement 17, and multiple articles from my own website. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, if at all.
Those of use interested in 9/11 are largely confined to the internet. Once we walk away from our computers the subject has passed into history, to be revisited annually.
Mackey wrote a chapter on what he called “The Conspiracy Hangover.” It is difficult for anyone who has invested months if not years into an analysis of 9/11 to simply walk away. I cannot yet do that, for one. Mackey, in reference to the truth community says of their behavior, “if anything, it more closely resembles an addiction.” In that vein, both Mackey and I are also addicted, we are member so a truth community, but one very different that that of the so-called “9-11 truthers.” Our search for truth is fact-based and a willingness to correct the story in the light of new, credible information.
Mackey believes of the truth movement that “every one of them is to some degree sincere.” And in that sincerity some will see the light. I leave open the lines of communication to anyone seriously interested in events of 9/11. Elsewhere, I have referred to the “young and talented” Dylan Avery. Youth and talent and a serious search for the facts of the day are a potent combination.
In the end, Mackey postulates that “it may take an entirely new conspiracy theory to distract [the truth community] from 9/11 Truth.”
Birthers and Deathers
By Mackey’s account the next two new conspiracies have already happened, the question of President Obama’s birth certificate and the facts surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden. He then speculates that we may be seeing the third emerge from, the “99% Movement.” Those still addicted to 9/11 will, predictably, try to latch on as best they can, if at all.
Mackey then concludes in philosophical mode for a couple of chapters, almost a script from a counselor. At the end he simply says “Get out there and enjoy the day. It’s easy.”