Tales of 9/11 - What conspiracy theories in Egypt and the United States tell us about ‘media effects’
Issue 11, Summer 2010
The infamous 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York
In the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have been subjected to extensive polling to better gauge their knowledge, opinions, and attitudes about such matters as the threat posed by terrorism, the nature of Islam, the scope of the Patriot Act, the wisdom of US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other issues pertaining to foreign policy and domestic security. Many of these survey findings appear worrisome, particularly from a civil liberties perspective. For example, public support for the unprecedented surveillance measures undertaken by the Federal government after 9/11 has remained high, while negative attitudes towards Islam and/or Muslim-Americans have increased (Harris Interactive 2004; Pew Research 2003, 2006). However, while such attitudes may be cause for concern, they are perhaps unsurprising given the quality and quantity of US media coverage devoted to these issues. Equally troublesome, but far more perplexing are public beliefs about the alleged relationships between the former Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and 9/11.
A substantial body of survey data indicates that as late as 2006, a majority of Americans believed both that Iraq possessed WMD, and that Saddam Hussein had ‘strong links’ to al Qaeda before the US invaded Iraq in 2003. For example, a study conducted in 2004 by the University of Maryland found that 57% of American held to the ‘strong links’ belief, with 20% affirming direct Iraqi involvement in 9/11 (PIPA, 2004). Polls conducted by Angus Reid (2006) and Harris Interactive (2006) both revealed that 62% of the American public held to the strong links belief in 2004, with the number increasing slightly to 64% in 2005 and 2006. And while 36% of Americans believed Iraq had WMD in 2005, that number had grown to 50% by 2006 (Ibid). What is particularly noteworthy about the beliefs in question is that they have persisted well after it was revealed that they were based upon spurious information. Numerous investigations took place in the year following the invasion which debunked both the WMD and the Iraq/al Qaeda linkage claims. These findings were widely reported in the media with numerous politicians and pundits critical of the war claiming that the public had been deliberately deceived by the Bush administration. However, rather than reversing, or even mitigating the effects of earlier misinformation, public ignorance about Iraq has either remained steady or actually increased.
American misperceptions about 9/11 find a distorted echo within the publics of numerous countries around the world. That much was revealed in a poll conducted in 2008 by the academic research organization World Public Opinion (WPO). Respondents in seventeen countries were asked the following open-ended question with no response options provided; “Who do you think was behind the 9/11 attacks?” Responses were then grouped into one of the following categories: al Qaeda, the US government, Israel, Other, Don’t Know. The countries polled were Germany, France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Indonesia, and Mexico, along with the Palestinian territories. Of the national publics surveyed majorities in only nine identified al Qaeda as the perpetrator behind the attacks. In no instance did a majority agree on a possible alternative culprit. However, significant minorities in most countries named the US government. The top four in this category were an interesting mix; Turkey (36%), Mexico (30%), the Palestinian territories (27%), and Germany (23%). When responses from all national populations were averaged, 46% of those polled named al Qaeda as the perpetrator, 15% pointed to the US government, 7% named Israel, 7% cited another culprit, and 25% didn’t know (Ibid).
The publics of Middle Eastern countries were more likely than those in other parts of the world to point to a 9/11 perpetrator other than al Qaeda. In the case of the Palestinian territories, while the largest grouping (42%) named al Qaeda, 27% named the US government and 19% named Israel. Nine percent named another perpetrator and 3% ‘didn’t know’. In Jordan, only 11% named al-Qaeda, the lowest percentage among all countries surveyed. The largest percentage of Jordanians ‘didn’t know’ (36%), while 31% named Israel, 17% named the US, and 4% named another perpetrator. After Jordan, Egypt had the lowest number of respondents (16%) naming al Qaeda, and of all the countries surveyed, it had the largest minority pointing to a specific alternative perpetrator. Eighteen percent of Egyptians indicated that they didn’t know who was behind the attacks, 12% cited the US, and 11% fell into the ‘other’ category. However, 43% of Egyptians named Israel as responsible.
The WPO findings for Egypt hold special interest here. The main reason is that, superficially at least, they appear to have much in common with the previously cited poll results dealing with public perceptions in the United States about Iraq. Most notably, relevant public beliefs in each case take the form of a ‘conspiracy theory’; one structured along similar lines. In each country significant numbers of people believe that the 9/11 attacks were facilitated by agents of a foreign state – Iraq versus Israel respectively – attempting to conceal its role in aiding and abetting terror directed against Americans. Furthermore, in each case these beliefs have taken on a mass character. They are held not merely by groups or individuals on the margins of their host societies, but rather by large minorities or slight majorities of each national population. Hence, in terms of both the structure and content of the beliefs in each country, as well as their widespread acceptance, a clear symmetry is apparent. As will be demonstrated, however, there are also differences between the two situations which are at least as important as the apparent similarities. The most significant of these pertain to the role played by the mass media vis-à-vis the origins, dissemination and perceived credibility of relevant beliefs within each population. The similarities and differences between the two scenarios will be explored at length in the main body of this paper.
The survey findings reviewed above beg several important questions. In the case of the United States, why does such a large portion of the public continue to accept claims about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which are now known to be baseless? If the mainstream media were indeed critical in promoting misguided beliefs on these matters, then why have they not played a similar role in eliminating them? In the case of Egypt, the problem is rather different. Here we must account for the persistence of beliefs which appear to be directly at odds with the goals and outlook of the ruling regime. Egypt has been the largest recipient of American financial and military aid in the world after Israel, and has been at peace with the latter since 1979. In the years following 9/11, Egypt and Israel have moved closer in terms of their foreign policy, particularly with respect to their mutual identification of radical Islam as enemy number one. Assuming that the state-controlled news media in Egypt are at least as uncritical of their government’s policies as their counterparts in America are of US state policies, then why have they not done a better job of instilling the ‘correct’ beliefs and attitudes among the citizenry?
The questions raised above may be subsumed under a more general line of inquiry; why do the conspiratorial beliefs in question sound true to so many people within the two national publics of interest? I contend that this question may be productively addressd through appeals to the main premises and lines of argument traditionally invoked by those defending strong versus weak models of media influence respectively. However, rather than digressing to outline the long history of debates in this area, my intent is to draw upon the most relevant evidence and arguments from each broad perspective in conjunction with attention to the Egyptian and American case studies. As will be demonstrated, there are sound reasons for believing that the mass media in any given society may play either a weak or a strong role in shaping (specific) public perceptions and attitudes, depending upon prevailing social, cultural and political realities. At the same time, I will argue that the insights informing much of the research conducted in this area have often been limited by a relatively narrow focus on such issues as voter behavior, the impact of specific political campaigns, or other phenomena which foreground the importance of partisan politics.
1 See Graham (2004), Hans (2002), Herman (1982), Hess (1999), Herold (2004), Johnson (2001, 2004) and Novak (2006) for discussion of these and other cases of US (or US-backed) military attacks on civilians, and the manner in which they were rationalized or ignored by politicians and the media. Johnson (2004, p. 75) makes the additional observation that the US remains the only state ever condemned by the World Court for the crime of terrorism; a result of its support for the Contras and related covert attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s.