In perspective: If 9/11 happened 20 years later
For most part, the September 11 attacks are remembered through shaky footage. The most searing images are of the moment United Airlines Flight 175 sliced into the second tower of World Trade Centre, and of the 110-storey twin towers collapsing.
The spectacle — indeed, the terror strike was engineered by terrorists for it to be a television spectacle — has lived on in the consciousness of most people around the world with a degree of permanence usually reserved for significant life events, at least for those who were at least adolescents in 2001.
But what would happen if the attacks took place at a time when each of the estimated 18,000 people who were in the towers — and the tens of thousands more in lower Manhattan — had the tools of technology we have today? One hopes such an attack would never happen again, in New York or elsewhere in the world. But how would we talk about it, if conversations were no longer the preserve of the media elite as they were back then?
Seeing, hearing and feeling it
In 2001, less than half of the American public had a mobile phone. The first cell phone with a built-in camera would not be sold in the country until late 2002. The ability for users to transmit static photos cheaply would take another couple of years. And it would take another 14 years for the average user to have access to a mainstream platform (Periscope, 2015) to stream footage live from their mobile phones.
Today’s high-definition, livestream technology would have undoubtedly captured more of September 11, 2001, in volume as well as detail. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of high-definition footage would be generated from mobile phones and CCTV cameras. The final moments of victims would likely have been told through FaceTime calls and Facebook Live, instead of recordings left on answering machines. The horror would be captured in high-resolution, as would the heroism of the first responders and the people on board United Airlines Flight 93.
The port explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020 is a good example of what could have been — the realness of an explosion equivalent to the yield of 500 tons of TNT, the shockwave that followed, and the carnage it left behind lives on in footage that can rival the fiction of big budget Hollywood production.
Among the first responses to the tragedy of September 11 was an outpouring of solidarity. Researchers found that surveys taken in the immediate aftermath of the attacks suggested 10% of Americans volunteered to help victims of the attacks. According to one paper looking at the findings, people volunteered because they could identify with the victims and were motivated by a patriotic response to defend the society they identified with.
Also among the first responses were some critical questions: Who did this? How could this happen? The year 2001 had a much larger asymmetry in information access than now — people depended largely on legacy media. The information access was guided by the editorial decisions of these sources.
According to a Pew Research estimate, 55% of American adults had access to the internet and were, thus, able to exercise some choice in the information they sought out. While the top Google search at the time was still of CNN, suggesting people largely chose to follow a reliable source, there was one search term (according to Google’s own report) that signalled an early risk to misinformation even at the time — a supposed prophecy from 16th century French writer Nostradamus.
The theory has since been debunked as fabrication of what Nostradamus wrote. Of the 55% adults who could access the internet, it is likely that only a portion (it was seventh among the top 10 searched terms) was exposed to the misleading buzz around Nostradamus.
But this would only mark the start of conspiracy theories around 9/11 and these conspiracy theories would go on to become the earliest major examples of online misinformation, which today threatens to tear a whole in the fabric of knowledge.
Today, misinformation is ubiquitous. In an interview to AP earlier this month, Korey Rowe, the producer of Loose Change (a 2005 documentary that popularised the theory of 9/11 being a US plot) summarised the problem of modern day online hoaxes: “Look at where it’s gone: You have people storming the Capitol because they believe the election was a fraud. You have people who won’t get vaccinated and they’re dying in hospitals. We’ve gotten to the point where information is actually killing people.”
Reacting to it
Such degree of misinformation will likely have morphed the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in ways difficult to project at present. As it is, the September 11 attacks engendered unprecedented fear.
Terrorism not only sets out to “accomplish a political, religious, or ideological goal; it is also expected to affect a target audience and modify that audience’s behavior in a way that will serve the needs of the terrorist,” Joseph S Tuman, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, wrote in Communicating Terror: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Terrorism.
On this count, 9/11 was successful from the perspective of the perpetrators and, if it were to happen 20 years later, the amplification by present-day media and the potential for polarisation in the way community interactions occur today would arguably have achieved these objectives easier.
Today’s social conversations are dominated by outrage. A study into online behaviour published in June this year found that animosity towards an out group — or other people — drives engagement on social media. What we say today about the other is more likely to be associated with anger, and words with a negative effect or with moral-emotional language drives more engagement. Engagement is the critical objective of today’s attention economy.
This is important because it predicts that in addition to false facts, the potential of polarisation today is higher than it was before. This potential has resulted in at least two terror attacks distinct from those stemming from Islamic fundamentalism — the March 2019 shootings at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and a similar attempt in Oslo in August that year.
A research study later that year found a correlation between terror attacks by Islamist extremist groups and retaliatory strikes by white nationalists – both of whom have now begun to leverage social media to more effectively deliver and amplify their respective propaganda.
If fear, hate and polarisation do not organically occur in modern information flows, active information operations have often introduced them. This will likely be leveraged not just by State adversaries of a victim of a 9/11-like terror attack, but also those domestic actors that see a gain in politics of fear.
Former US President George W Bush, who was President during the September 11 attacks and steered the American response to the tragedy, alluded to this last week when he said, “So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment”.
A modern 9/11 will, therefore, likely have led to a more polarised world, with greater costs on civil liberties as a consequence of a hyper-reactionary response by the State.
In Perspective takes a deep dive into current issues, the visible and invisible factors at play, and their implications for our future. The column is out every Monday
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