I have just completed a one hour lecture on Terrorism and Conspiracy Theory, and followed it up with three seminars to undergraduates on the same subject.
The main things I wanted to get across to students were the historical scale of conspiracy theories, that they can be accelerated by secrecy, government dishonesty and incompetence and that the Internet has allowed them to go in a thousand and one different directions. I then focused on the 9/11 Truth Movement, looking at some of its core beliefs, MIHOP (that the US government made the attacks happen on purpose) and LIHOP (let it happen on purpose) and the uses that are made of the following quote from the neo-Cons Project For A New American Century:
"Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbour" (2000, 51).
This of course 'proves' that the Bush administration either allowed 9/11 to happen or arranged it! I also covered some issues around race, religion and conspiracy theory, and that whilst black American groups such as the Nation of Islam may be paranoid, that has not always meant that in the past that no one was out to 'get' black Americans!
In the closing part of the lecture I covered some of the responses to 'truth' activism - the papers of groups such as Demos, writers like Jon Ronson, David Aaronovitch and Damian Thompson, and the belated responses by the US government. Concluding comments centred on whether there is a 'template' of conspiracist ideals - core elements that can be found in all arguments, and whether we can see in this, glimpses of future conspiracy theories. Most of all I hope students took away the impression that the Internet, as well as being a tool for good, can also retard debate. Look around some workplaces at lunch or break times, and instead of talking to workmates, many people are sat there playing with their I-Phones and Blackberrys. What happens when most people, get most of their news, most of time, from the Internet?
In the seminars, I asked students to consider two things. What questions did they have outstanding with regards to 9/11, and to what extent should opinion formers, polticians and government seek to respond to 'truth' theories. To stimulate some debate I distributed photocopies of an A5 'truth' leaflet from 2006 "It's 5 Years Since the Attacks on 9/11" - this largely focused on the argument controlled demolition brought down WTC 1, 2 and 7, plus provided suggestions witnesses heard explosions before the towers came down.
Some of the 'celebrity' supporters of 9/11 truth that were listed - Charlie Sheen and David Shayler - had not stood the test of time very well, all three groups roared with laughter at the mention of Mr Sheen. Answers on the first question were few and far between (most student's were clearly sheeple, as they seemed to broadly agree Bin Laden did it) whilst the second brought more mixed answers.
The difficulty of 'responding' to truth arguments was stressed, as was the lack of any named sources for the 'scientific' evidence presented. On one level I was left feeling slightly more optimistic than I had expected to be - students appear to want to discuss evidence and to see named sources for claims that are made - freeze framed pictures of 'premature' explosions did not seem to impress them.
This may be a protest generation. But on this evidence at least, it is unlikely to go up the blind alley of 'truth' activism.