Michael Ruppert, a former Los Angeles Police Department narcotics officer, has filled auditoriums in California, Texas, Oregon and Canada to explain what he sees as evidence that wealthy American interests were behind Sept. 11 — and he advertises those talks and the ideas on his Web site.
Then there's a best-selling book published in France that falls into the no-plane-hit-Pentagon school, and says the story was rigged to cover up a bombing targeting the new U.S. Naval Command Center that was carried out by people with classified access to the building.
The author, Thierry Meyssan, who had made a name for himself in France with exposés of the right-wing National Front, says in L'Effroyable imposture (The Horrible Fraud) that there was a secret CIA office in the World Trade Center that was carrying out illegal activities, and that the Bush administration was in negotiation with bin Laden on Sept. 11 itself, to work out an agreement to make him a scapegoat. The book has gotten little coverage in the United States, but it's worn a deep path in cyberspace.
Similarly, conspiracy theorists noticed quickly last week when U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., said in an interview on a Berkeley, Calif., radio station that she wanted an investigation into what the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attacks — before they occurred — suggesting that his friends are getting rich from the fallout.
Only hours after a story about her suggestion appeared in The Washington Post, the story was making the rounds in mass mailings on the Internet.
In one of the mailings, the link to the Post story appears with a headline that indicated the story went further than it does: "Mainstream News Article Stating Bush New [sic] Before 9/11." In the newspaper, the story bears the headline "Democrat Implies Sept. 11 Administration Plot."
McKinney's office did not return a call requesting an interview, but she issued a statement saying: "I am not aware of any evidence showing that President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9/11. A complete investigation might reveal that to be the case."
Whispers in Cyberspace
The way the story was spread shows how the Internet has given a new vitality to the theories, not only because of the ease it provides for disseminating ideas, but because of the very way the ideas can be presented.
"In a way the message becomes separated from the source on the Internet," said John Pavlik, a Columbia University journalism professor and executive director of the Conference for New Media. "You go online and you don't see the people making the Web site, all you see is the site, and if it's at all well done, it can seem credible."
"Everything on the Internet looks the same — the site for The New York Times and the site for some bizarre conspiracy theorist both look the same," Barkun said. "The differentiation that exists in print publications between the establishment and these fringe elements isn't there on the Internet. And the fact of multiple postings can make something seem more authoritative than if it were only up there once."
LiBrizzi, who has been teaching a class on conspiracy theories in American life for three years both in the classrom and through an online correspondence course, said that working on the Internet feeds the conspiracist's way of thinking.