How 9/11 truthers planted the seeds for QAnon

Season 2 Episode 1

How 9/11 truthers planted the seeds for QAnon

John McDermott,
James Meigs,
Ann Van Hine

About The Episode

For the second season of Is that a fact?, we’re exploring the origins of false narratives and the harm they have caused. We know that sharing misinformation is misleading and leaves people poorly informed, but we wanted to go deeper and explore how fictional information starts and then bubbles to the surface to misdirect the country’s civic and cultural discourse.

For our first episode of the season, we take a look back at the myths that surround the September 11 attacks as the 20th anniversary of that day approaches. One of the core drivers of 9/11 misinformation was the film Loose Change, which our first guest, Esquire magazine correspondent John McDermott tells us, “remains probably the single most popular piece of conspiracy media ever created.” He explains how the film started a movement of conspiracy theorists that planted the seeds for today’s Qanon believers.

Our second guest, James Meigs, former Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief, discusses how his team of journalists debunked many of the myths propagated by Loose Change even before the film came out. “What was really powerful about Loose Change wasn’t the specific claim,” said Meigs. “It was the overall mood of the film making… It had really cool music. It had all this slow motion. It had this very compelling narration, even if a lot of it didn’t make a lot of sense. It was quite powerful to watch.”

Our final guest is Ann Van Hine whose husband was a firefighter killed the day of the terrorist attacks explained dealing with the anniversary in personal terms and explains what it’s like to come face to face with so-called Truthers while working as a docent at the 9/11 Tribute Museum.

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Episode Transcript

Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is that a fact?, brought to you by the nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. On September 11, 2021, the United States will mark the 20th anniversary of the most deadly foreign attack on American soil. It changed a way of life for the people of this country and others around the world. It’s an event that was so big in scale that almost everyone in the U.S. who was alive that day remembers where they were and what they were doing when it happened. I was a journalism grad student at NYU, living in lower Manhattan at the time. But it was also a day that spawned what you might call a cottage industry of conspiracy theories that red-pilled [and] like in the film, The Matrix, many Americans forever shifting how they viewed reality.

In the months and years following the terrorist attacks, hundreds of disparate and misguided rumors about the day coalesced into a sinister conspiracy theory that the U.S. government and business people either masterminded the events or were responsible in some way by allowing it to happen. The greatest propagator of this theory was the blockbuster internet film, Loose Change, released in April 2005, before streaming video was commonplace. It had no theatrical release and it was available for purchase by mail and even just given away on physical DVDs, sort of old school style. In the years since, it has been re-cut and re-released five times, and it’s still available for streaming on YouTube and other platforms in various forms. It’s estimated that millions of people have seen some version of Loose Change.

It’s really impossible to quantify its full impact, but a 2016 study by Chapman University found that more than half of Americans believe that the government had deliberately concealed information about the attacks. For a second season of Is that a fact?, we’re going to explore false narratives like this and the harm they do to people and to the country civic and cultural conversations. On this, our premier episode of the season, we start by talking to two journalists well-versed in Loose Change, Esquire correspondent, John McDermott, who argues that the film laid the foundation for the mainstreaming of our current culture of misinformation, blazing a trail of footprints leading directly to QAnon; and James Meigs, former Editor-in-Chief of Popular Mechanics, who describes how he and his team were driven to debunk each of the myths being propagated by the conspiracy theorists.

We also caught up with Ann Van Hine, a widow of a firefighter who lost his life in the Twin Towers, to hear how she feels about the so-called truthers she’s encountered since she lost her husband.
Thanks for joining us today, John. So I first heard about Loose Change from middle school students I was teaching in my work with the News Literacy Project. And I learned that the film shaped their understanding of what had happened on 9/11. This was several years ago, and these were kids who hadn’t even been born when 9/11 happened. I have now seen the film and the fact that it was the filter through which these kids were interpreting the events of 9/11 is pretty disturbing to me. Can you describe to our audience what Loose Change is?

John McDermott: Loose Change is a documentary, and I use that term documentary loosely, about the events of 9/11, and specifically it’s a conspiracy theory documentary that posits 9/11 was what conspiracists would call a false flag mission, carried out either with the explicit help of the U.S. government or the U.S. government knew that it was going to happen and allowed it to happen as a pretext to enter into the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and create this never ending war on terror.

Darragh Worland: So why is this film significant?

John McDermott: Well, it’s significant because I think it remains probably the single most popular piece of conspiracy media ever created. I mean, you’re talking about a time before social media being the phenomenon or the expansive kind of multinational phenomenon it is today. This thing went viral by old fashioned word of mouth. It was people message forwarding to each other saying, “You have to watch this. What you were told about 9/11 is a lie. This is the truth.” And was seen by millions of people, and again, before YouTube was even around, it was starting to go viral. I mean, that’s how powerful this film was, and that’s how much of a grip it had on the culture is that even without the distribution infrastructure that we have today, it was still able to reach such a significant number of people.

It wasn’t the only piece of 9/11 conspiracy theory media ever made. There was actually quite a bit out there, but it was by far the most popular. And that probably speaks to all of the filmmaking techniques that were used in the film. Regardless of what you think about the theories and the supposedly facts that are contained within the film, the production quality is pretty high. So it made for a very compelling narrative.

Darragh Worland: So can you talk a little bit about the style of the film and how it contributes to why it might be so convincing?

John McDermott: The film is really engrossing. It’s got this electronic ambient soundtrack kind of murmuring in the background, just kind of core-setting, and it creates this ominous tone to the entire film. And then they just bump RJ with facts, and I put the term facts in scare quotes in archival footage from the day the attacks happened of people, in the moment, maybe misinterpreting what had just immediately happened and things that later got clarified. But in the moment, it looks like people might be lying or bending the truth… visuals of the towers falling, CGI recreations of the flight paths, it’s just so much coming at you at once that it kind of overwhelms you and you’re just awash and this alternative reality that they’ve kind of constructed. It makes for very compelling filmmaking [and] it makes a very compelling case for what they’re arguing.

Darragh Worland: In your Esquire article about the legacy of Loose Change, you tie the film to more contemporary conspiracy theories like QAnon, kind of analyzing the film from a cultural perspective. Can you talk about that a little bit?

John McDermott: What’s interesting is right after I wrote the article, I had a bunch of people reach out to me and I saw a number of comments on Reddit and other platforms of people saying Loose Change was the film that red-pilled them, which in conspiracy theory lingo [is] a moment when somebody has the veil lifted from their eyes and they suddenly see that everything they once thought to be true was actually a lie. It’s a reference to the movie, The Matrix. Essentially, they were kind of proving my thesis. I wish they had piped up before I’ve written the article and I could have included them in there, but sometimes that’s just how it goes. They were essentially confirming that either people they knew initially got turned on to conspiracies by Loose Change, or Loose Change was the kind of inflection point they saw in the media where conspiracies really start to grab hold of a significant number of people. And these alternate narratives really began to kind of proliferate beneath the surface.

Darragh Worland: But also I think it’s a kind of thing where unless you’re tuned into it and the algorithm has clued into your being tuned into it, you’re not necessarily going to be going down those rabbit holes.

John McDermott: Yeah, totally. Well, to that point, what I’ve always been so fascinated by is that these theories are so incredibly pervasive and widespread and so intensely believed, but there’s an entire other portion of the populace that’s completely unaware of them. And it’s something we talk about all the time now, but it really was my first experience of people living in two different realities when it came to experiencing and interpreting news events.

Darragh Worland: Well, I think 2016 was when these two worlds collided, fake news became a term that everyone became aware of, and we started to understand that there was alternative facts. I think that was the inflection point as far as the two worlds colliding.

John McDermott: Well, my point with the piece that I wrote was that this world had been building for an entire decade. I really saw Loose Change as kind of the most significant kind of starting point. That was when the internet was really starting to become big, people were using it as an alternative to mainstream media, and it was beginning to grow these communities that whose entire reason for being was to offer up an alternative to mainstream media. You’re right, it didn’t break through to the public consciousness in a profound way until Donald Trump or something.

Darragh Worland: So QAnon is primarily linked to extremists on the right, but one of the points you make in your Esquire piece is that the 9/11 conspiracy theories actually started on the left.

John McDermott: The interesting thing is we tend to think of conspiracy theories in rigidly partisan terms today, but Loose Change and the broader kind of 9/11 truther movement, which was demanding a re-investigation of the events of 9/11, and asserting that the major narrative was a faulted one, really drew in people from all points of the political spectrum, both left and right. Left-wing people who saw it as, hey, the Bush administration, you use these events to enrich themselves. So there was the anti-Bush crab on the left, but there was also a contingent on the right that were just anti-establishment. This is around the same time where a very kind of staunchly like the Libertarian, Ron Paul, Tea Party sentiments were just starting to bubble up. Again, they hadn’t reached the mainstream yet, but the seeds were being planted.

Darragh Worland: So ironically, 9/11 conspiracy theory adherence came to be known as truthers, and this term is now more broadly applied to people who believe in all kinds of conspiracy theories, they call themselves truthers. So who were the original truthers?

John McDermott: These are people who firmly believe that we’ve never been given the full, accurate telling of what happened that day and the different parties that participated in the events.

Darragh Worland: In your Esquire piece, you don’t really mention the claims of Loose Change and refute them one by one, but you do mention a well-known Popular Mechanics piece that’s since become a series that does refute them. Can you talk about that?

John McDermott: Well, the Popular Mechanics piece came up because the Editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics at the time was trying to modernize the magazine and was someone who browses the internet, encountered a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy theories. Being a curious mind was like, this is an enormous story, it’s right in Popular Mechanics as its wheelhouse, it’s all about engineering and science, so let’s attack it. And to his credit, he went in with an open mind. They did point by point refute all of these claims that were being made by conspiracy theorists. That piece came before Loose Change, to your point.

Darragh Worland: And a showdown it was. As you’ll learn in our conversation with James Meigs, former Popular Mechanics Editor-in-Chief, the magazine’s editors and Loose Change filmmakers even faced off in a televised debate for Democracy Now. James, thanks so much for joining us today. What prompted the 9/11 myth project at Popular Mechanics?

James Meigs: In 2004 in the fall, I was looking at the New York Times and I saw a full page ad for a book called Painful Questions. And it was a self-published book of conspiracy theories, including many of the ones that would become very prominent in the early years of these theories, like the idea that they said jet fuel doesn’t burn hot enough to melt steel therefore the impacts of the planes can explain why the Twin Towers fell. Or the hole in the Pentagon wasn’t big enough to have been made by a jet, therefore it must have been some kind of a missile. So I looked at that. I’d been aware that these theories were out there. They weren’t getting much coverage in the mainstream media, no one was really taking them seriously enough to actually check them out or look into the factual claims people were making. They were spreading online.

These are the days before social media or YouTube, but there were lots of blogs and web pages and forums devoted to this. So I thought, okay, well, Popular Mechanics., we’ve been writing articles about how buildings get built, what happens when planes crash, and all of these kinds of topics for many, many decades. This is in our wheelhouse, let’s take these seriously and actually check out the facts. And the facts we focused on were the ones that the conspiracy theorist themselves were citing as proof or at least support for their positions. We didn’t try to retell the entire story of 9/11, we simply looked at the most common claims made by the conspiracy theorists themselves.

Darragh Worland: So at the center of a lot of these theories, is the idea… And I don’t know if this goes all the way back to when you’re talking about, that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government. Is this something that you were also looking at or were you just sort of looking at the facts independently?

James Meigs: Yes, that’s a very good question. We looked at specific facts in the physical world and the factual world. There are people who would claim that the U.S. government was part of some kind of corrupt empire that works secretly behind the scenes over a century or more to do all kinds of bad things. We didn’t get into those kinds of plans. But if someone said, for example, that our air defense system was ordered to stand down on 9/11, otherwise we would have easily intercepted and shot down these airliners before they hit their targets, well, that’s the kind of claim we could check. And when we checked it, we found out it wasn’t the case at all.

Darragh Worland: Why would Popular Mechanics be credible on this topic?

James Meigs: Popular mechanics is over 100 years old, a journal of science and technology that attempts to examine technological subjects for a general audience, and I think the magazine was well-positioned to do it, especially since the magazine has no particular political bent, it’s not a journal of opinion, it’s not a magazine that would cover political campaigns or anything like that. We didn’t have a dog in the fight in terms of any kind of political implications of our findings, but we did think that establishing the truth on this was really important. It’s the most important day in history in most of our lifetimes, and some claims were being made that were extremely troubling. If there was a grain of truth in them, then that should come out. If they were not true, then people should know that. And to me, that’s the job of journalists is to try to get the story straight, to try to establish what the facts are.

Darragh Worland: Can you talk to us about how you conducted your research?

James Meigs: That’s a great question. People sometimes after our article came out, they said, “Well, you guys are Popular Mechanics, you are experts on all these topics.” We never made that claim, we were reporters, and we did what any reporter could do, which was, we talked to the experts. By 2005, this was an incident that had been extensively studied. There were numerous reports on the engineering of the collapse of the Twin Towers, for example. There was an extensive report on the attack on the Pentagon. There was a great deal of technical data so we could simply get these reports and read them. We didn’t have to dig out obscure hacks. We only had to look at information that was widely available. We had a team of reporters, it shifted over the different phases of the work, but over the course of the entire project, about 15 reporters probably worked on this, first on the initial magazine report and then when we expanded it into a book in 2006, and again, in 2011, when we updated our book, Debunking 9/11 Myths.

Throughout that period, we worked with professional magazine fact-checkers and reporters, many of whom had a background in science reporting, but you didn’t need to be an engineer to interview an engineer. You don’t need to be an aviator to interview people who understand how our civil air defense system works. So that’s the approach we took. We actually talked to people, we reviewed the copious evidence. And I want to stress this, the way the conspiracies theories work is they don’t actually try to argue with the mountains of evidence supporting the mainstream view. What they do instead is they focus on things they see are anomalies that are out of step with the mainstream view. So, for example, l in the chaos of that day, there were some firefighters who said, “Well, I think we heard bombs in the building,” it would be natural that you would jump to that conclusion.

If you hear things, crazy noises, as you’re in the vicinity of this terrible disaster, that doesn’t mean that there were bombs, but what a conspiracy theorists will do, well, they’ll take that quote, something that was said in the chaos of the moment, and give it more way than a university study in which a whole range of experts spent nine months investigating what actually happened would. That happens again and again. So our focus was, again, not on retelling the vast story of everything that happened that day, but on simply looking at the factual claims made by the conspiracy theorists that they think show that the mainstream view is wrong. And every time we did that, we found out even those claims were not accurate. It shows you how imaginary the worldview is of the conspiracy theorist in the first place.

Darragh Worland: Was there any concern in your mind about perpetuating conspiracy theories about 9/11 by reprinting them? Or were you not concerned about that because you were debunking them like right there on their face?

James Meigs: No, we worried about that. And we talked about it. There’s actually some evidence that when people are given counter-evidence to something they deeply believe, it only intensifies their belief, but we’re journalists. I felt like we didn’t have much of a choice. Yes, maybe some people would read our article and learn about conspiracy theories and all down the rabbit hole, but I was really struck that nobody in the mainstream media was taking this stuff very seriously. The New York Times and many others did a great job in the days, and really months and years after 9/11 to report on it accurately, but they didn’t seem to see this rise of fringe conspiracy theories as something really worth their notice. These ideas were allowed to flourish on the fringes of journalistic culture.

And you have to remember, back then, these were left-wing ideas. This was the time when there were a lot of anti-war marches, a lot of resentment of Bush and Cheney. So when these theories started popping up that Bush and Cheney were responsible for 9/11, because it allowed them to start their wars to go after oil in the Middle East, that made sense to a lot of people. And you couldn’t go to an anti-war march without seeing signs that said a 9/11 was an inside job.

Darragh Worland: So interestingly enough, Loose Change came out after your article came out, right?

James Meigs: Correct.

Darragh Worland: So these conspiracy theories have been gaining momentum in different places, and then Loose Change came out and really gave them momentum with one film that was sort of stringing them all together. At what point did you see Loose Change, and what did you think of it?

James Meigs: What was really powerful about Loose Change wasn’t the specific claim, it was the overall mood of the filmmaking. It was very effectively made. It had really cool music. It had all this slow motion. It had this very compelling narration. Even if a lot of it didn’t make a lot of sense, it was quite powerful to watch and quite convincing. In some ways, if you didn’t know the facts, the things that Loose Change were focusing on looked very compelling. You can totally see how some kid watching this in his bedroom at night would be completely taken in by this idea, and I think that was part of what gave it its power.

Darragh Worland: So by the time you saw it, you would have been completely immune to it, even though you did find the techniques persuasive because you had all this evidence that you had gathered.

James Meigs: Let me tell you something. Some of these conspiracy theories, once you go down that rabbit hole, and you kind of forget about everything you know it’s not in the rabbit hole, even I would be sometimes like, “Hmm, wow, that does sound really weird. Like, huh, maybe… “ You’d have these moments where it would work on you emotionally and then you’d have to kind of come up for air and I remember it. Like no, wait, wait, we read the transcripts. We know that this didn’t happen this way, but it is very, very compelling filmmaking, which is not really surprising. Dylan Avery, the main creative, wanted to be a filmmaker. He’s very gifted, not as someone who could put together a coherent, accurate narrative, but as someone who can put together a very compelling piece of propaganda. There was a lot of talent in that movie and especially impressive since it was basically made with no budget.

Darragh Worland: Then in 2006, you actually came face to face with Avery, which is taking it even a step further rather than just addressing the conspiracy theories that he and others like him were spreading. You now debated him face-to-face for Democracy Now, which is amazing to me. Can you tell us about that experience?

James Meigs: What was interesting was we had spent all this time addressing fact, after fact, after fact. Let’s say there were 25 factual claims made in Loose Change, and we had essentially shown that every single one of them was false or mistaken or misinterpreted. So by the end of the interview, they’re coming up with new things, other things that they hadn’t floated before. And this is so typical of conspiracy theories. You knock down A, B, C, D, and E but then people say, “Well, but, oh, what about F?” And their conviction remains just as powerful. No matter how many of the very things they claimed were so important a month before, they will drop and kind of move on to other things. It never ends.

Darragh Worland: One of the points you make throughout the debate, which I think is so valuable, and something we talk about at NLP and is it really important news literacy teachable moment is that a lot of the facts, and again, I use “facts” in quotes here, a lot of the facts shared in Loose Change come from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and you’re talking about how you don’t use this word, but we use this a lot at NLP, is sort of how the truth is provisional in breaking news, right? Like we only know what we know in the immediate aftermath of a major event, right? So like the amount of injured or dead might change. What we know about exactly what happened or who was involved is going to change and evolve over time. And you make this point repeatedly in a debate. Do you just want to talk about that a little bit?

James Meigs: This is such a good point. And you mentioned earlier when you watch Loose Change, you never know when any of this information came up. They never really tell you. And it’s a very standard thing in conspiracy theories to grab the earliest report. So a classic one was a crew who got to the Pentagon and the guy standing there from a few 100 yards away and says, “There’s no sign of an airplane at the Pentagon.” You see that quote used again, and again, and again. I’m pretty sure it’s also in Loose Change. When there are pictures of the debris, as I said, the remains of the airplane were found inside the building, but the airplane didn’t just hit the outside of the building and stop it. It was moving at a very high rate of speed, travel into the building. Of course, within hours or days, more accurate reporting emerge, more pictures of the debris emerge, but the conspiracy theorists go back to that very, very first report.

There were endless engineering studies of the collapse and that there’s mountains of information that you can go that’s publicly available. The movie doesn’t mention any of that. So everything is left in this kind of spooky netherworld, where the only fact is the one they give you. And I think understanding that, asking that question, like, where do these facts come from, what’s the context, what’s not being included in the story, that’s important for all of us, especially when we’re consuming material that may be sort of from the fringe like this. But yeah, sadly, even a lot of mainstream reporting is not as good at this as it should be. And these are questions we should all ask ourselves anytime we encounter any news stories.

Darragh Worland: Why do you think this event, or this series of events on this day spawned so many conspiracy theories?

James Meigs: All major historical events that are traumatic trigger conspiracy theories, the sinking of the Titanic, the Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination. There is a human impulse to come up with explanations that makes some sort of sense to people that’s broader than wow, a really, really bad thing happened. In a way, it gives people a sense of control, or you would think it would be very unsettling, but in some ways, per the real diehard conspiracy theorist, it’s reassuring in a sense to think that this bad thing that happened, happened because some very powerful cabal of people made it happen, they engineered it on purpose. And it’s empowering for the person who believes it also psychologically because it makes them feel like other people don’t get this, but I’m smart enough to see through the illusion. I see what’s really going on here. And that gives a sense of self-importance of a purpose.

Darragh Worland: But what about those personally impacted by 9/11? For them, the false narratives perpetuated by Loose Change and the Truther Movement are more than a cultural phenomenon, they are invasions of privacy, hitting them where they are most vulnerable. We spoke to Anne Van Hine who has just published a memoir called Pieces Falling: Navigating 9/11 with Faith, Family, and the FDNY, about losing her husband, Bruce, a New York city firefighter on 9/11. At what point did you ultimately realize or come to terms with the fact that Bruce was never coming home?

Ann Van Hine: Well, that day I always knew he would be there because he was part of a squad, which is Special Operations Command. So I had no doubt about that. And it probably wasn’t until the weekend after that I was like, okay, I wasn’t answering the phone anymore expecting it to be him. As the days went on you, they weren’t pulling anybody out alive. And then on Tuesday, September 18th, the fire department had a meeting for the family members. And at that meeting, they told us it was going from rescue to recovery. And then I use that meeting to then say to my daughters, “Okay, it’s time to have a memorial service.” To which they said, “Well, what if you’re wrong?” And I said, “That’ll be great.”

Darragh Worland: And how was it for your daughters through that process?

Ann Van Hine: Well, obviously losing their father is the hardest part, but the fact that it’s something everybody knew about. Once they were a little older and went off to college, it wasn’t everybody already knew type thing, but in the beginning, it was everybody knew. And that’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just the way it was.

Darragh Worland: So for those of us who haven’t been through something like that, is it just that there’s no escaping it?

Ann Van Hine: Yeah. There’s a certain lack of privacy. And I think, especially in the case of things that are so big, like the September 11th attacks, everybody has a part of that day, right? Everybody knows where they were. Everybody has a memory. If it comes up in conversation, nearly everybody can chime in, but you’re actually talking about the day that my daughter’s dad died, the day my husband died. So it’s that interesting thing. And you want everybody to remember, but as I say many times, I told my girls early on, which this is not the way that Bruce and I raised them, but that is people started saying weird stuff about September 11th, which happened as time went on. I said, “Then just blow them out of the water.” Like just say flat out with no preparation for them, “My dad was on the firefighters killed that day,” because that’ll suck the air out of the room. And it’s not to be mean, but sometimes people need a reality check.

Darragh Worland: When you say weird stuff, do you mean like conspiracy theories, or misinformation?

Ann Van Hine: Sometimes it’s just misinformation or lack of information. I don’t think that sometimes it’s anyone trying to give out wrong information, they just don’t have complete information. Like especially in my case with volunteering with the 9/11 Tribute Museum, I got a bunch of information in my head. You don’t want to come across somebody that knows it all, but I’ll just give you a little example, and it’s going to probably show up anytime now. There is a Facebook post, they chose this beautiful dog, invariably, more than one person will tag me in this, “Oh, Ann, do you know this story?” The story is totally false, totally false. And it’s about that there was this dog that went up to the 102nd floor in building 54 times. I don’t have all the facts right, but it went up 54 times and rescued people, and kept running up and down. Well, first of all, in the first line, that’s wrong because nobody above the 90th floor survived. Then I feel like, great, now I got to tell these people this story is not real.

Darragh Worland: Like you got to be the kill joy.

Ann Van Hine: Exactly. And I usually try to twist it that, you know what? This story is not real, but there were dogs that day, and in the days after, they did amazing things. But there’s other September 11th stories like that, that are not real. And my thing is there are so many real stories that are inspirational as well as tragic that we should be honing in on instead of this beautiful dog showing up all the time, which I love dogs, but then I’m like, oh, thank you for sharing this, but this is not real. And you feel like a jerk.

Darragh Worland: So I want to get more into your volunteer experience. So I know that you speak to people in groups about your experience and you lead walking tours of the Tribute Museum at the 9/11 Memorial. So how have those experiences been for you?

Ann Van Hine: That has really been the most amazing experience of my life. In 2005, when both of my daughters at that point had gone off to college, I just received information in the mail from the fire department that at the time, it was the 9/11 Tribute Center, was wanted to start walking tours. And the premise of the walking tours was to discuss the timeline, discuss the history of that neighborhood, the building of the original World Trade Center, which is a phenomenal story, and then to share the personal stories of people.

Darragh Worland: So I’m sure you’ve encountered a lot of different people on those tours. During those events, have you ever come across anyone who’s insisted 9/11 was an inside job?

Ann Van Hine: The thing was when, and I’m pretty sure it was when the museum was opening, which would have been May of 2014, there were truthers out there constantly, actually right in front of the Fire Department Memorial, which is the corner of Greenwich and Liberty, then diagonally across the street is the National Memorial. It was harder to get on to the site, onto the Memorial when it first opened. You still had to go through security. They never went on to the Memorial. I never saw truthers on the Memorial. And I had heard of truthers before that. There was a little bit before that. So what they were doing in 2014 was they were dressed in blue polo shirts just like the Memorial people, and handing out pamphlets that were the same color as the Memorial and Tribute.

Ann Van Hine: And so people taking them thought they were taking stuff from Memorial people or Tribute people, but you were taking stuff from truthers. And that part really annoyed me, because that’s misinterpretation. Like if you want to be a truther, be a truther and hand out your literature, but don’t appear as you’re part of the museum.

Darragh Worland: I mean, that’s analog fake news, right?

Ann Van Hine: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. They were across the street, but they were in front of the Fire Department Memorial, which the 9/11 Tribute Museum, and they would have people there to give out little flyers. And it was the same color. The Museum and tributes colors are blue, because that was the color to replicate the color of the sky that day, the whole thing that it was clear, blue sky and no clouds.

Darragh Worland: How do you feel knowing that these truthers, and I put that in quotes, are pedaling this misinformation?

Ann Van Hine: One, it’s totally disrespectful to what happened, let alone to the people that had happened to, but also to the neighborhood. Yeah, it just was blatant misinformation.

Darragh Worland: And I think in the Newsweek article, you mentioned that there were like two European men who showed you a photo of United 175 about to hit.

Ann Van Hine: Yeah. So actually it was back in fall of 2019. I had spoken to a group of university students from Europe, and afterwards, two young men came up to me and asked if they could see one of the photos I’d shown again. And there’s a photo that we use on tours many times that shows United Flight 175 just before it hits the building. And I often comment, when I show that to these two people, that you do see building one on fire, and it’s taken from far away that the person who took that picture probably had no idea. They were taking a picture of the building on fire and they caught the plane just before it hit, right? Because none of us knew that was another plane. After, they came up and they asked if they could see that photo again, and I said, “Sure.” I pulled it out.

And the pictures are probably like 12 by 18. They’re blown up really big so that you could show them. They pointed and they go, “Oh, doesn’t that look a little fuzzy to you? Like, doesn’t it look like the plane was superimposed?” I don’t know exactly what they said, but that’s what they were getting at. And I said, “Well, first of all, this photo would have been taken by a person with a camera in New Jersey.” I said, “And look how big it’s been blown up?” And they made another comment, and I said, “One of our docents here, her husband was on that plane. And so when she tells her story, she tells you that’s the last moment her husband was alive.” I kind of felt bad saying it, but then I didn’t either, because I knew where they were going.

How can we comprehend that 19 terrorists flew with four planes to do extreme damage? I mean, I’ve had children and the youngest we’ve talked to at tribute is about 10, because really littler than that, you want to frame the story differently. After told the story and the timeline, one of the questions that always comes up with younger children, 10 years old like that is, “Well, did they catch the terrorists? Did the terrorists die?” Now, this is after you’ve said they hijacked the plane and flew the plane into the building. They can’t comprehend that the terrorists died. So then I have to say, “Well, no, the terrorists died.” Oh. I said, “Yes.” I said In the simplest terms, “They hated so much that they were willing to die themselves.” I said, “And that has a lot of backstory and a lot of history. And when you’re bigger, you can learn that. But for now, don’t let anybody tell you to hate somebody else.”

And then there was this one little boy and I’ll never forget him, and he looked at me, he goes, “But I don’t understand that.” And I go, “I hope you never understand that, that I hate you so much that I would kill myself.” It’s incomprehensible.

Darragh Worland: Thanks for listening. Is that a fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit helping educators, students, and the general public become news-literate so they can be active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb, our sound design and editing is by Timothy Kramer, and our theme music is by Eryn Bush. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to