9/11 online and the participatory dilemma
Together with Tobias Audersch we just published an article in the German Internet magazine Telepolis. It connects to my previous work on how 9/11 is represented on Google (I presented first results together with Erik Borra at the Society of the Query #2 conference) and how the case is negotiated on Wikipedia´s discussion pages (see my article in Information, Communication & Society). In both cases I was interested in the politics of exclusion, since the September 11 attacks are subject of a heated debate with fundamentally diverging interpretations. This challenges any kind of gatekeeper who has to decide what information is relevant – whether human or algorithmic. We observed that in the light of such controversy, the prevailing mechanism of selecting information takes a rather conservative approach by favoring well-established sources. This can be interpreted as a participatory dilemma: The Internet potentially allows for participation beyond the established knowledge hierarchies but exactly because it is used heavily in that regard, these hierarchies get reproduced even harsher online.
How can we overcome the participatory dilemma?
These observations were criticized especially by the digitally very active so-called 9/11 Truth Movement who believes that the “official” account of the attacks is wrong. Instead, their alternative accounts usually suggest that certain details indicate a complicity of the US government. Naturally, supporters of this perspective are not content with Wikipedia´s and Google´s politics of exclusion. Some of them have also used my work as a proof for an unjust form of censorship within the Wikipedia community. This provoked me to think further and to take a personal stand.
Indeed, I´m not a supporter of the Truth Movement and their accounts. I used to moderate a forum with Tobias Audersch in which we discussed their myriads of arguments in detail. None of them could convince me. However, this became an interesting case for my sociological perspective as it touches many questions discussed in my discipline: How does knowledge get socially constructed? What is the role of experts in a democratic society? How do the new online channels shape society and how does society shape them? One of the most crucial questions resulting from my research and experience with the Truth Movement is how can we overcome the participatory dilemma?
Anomaly hunting – on the methodological issues of the Truth Movement
For more conservative observers, the case is easy: They usually regard supporters of the 9/11 Truth Movement as conspiracy theorists who don´t deserve to be taken seriously. But whether we like it or not, these perspectives have become a “mainstream political reality” as Time-author Lev Grossman has once put it and opinion polls show. Therefore, radical exclusion might not be an adequate answer for democratic societies. More importantly, we may wonder how we can structure online debates in a way that allows for diverging viewpoints. My worry is not the exclusion of absurd theories, my worry is the across-the-board elimination of anything that contradicts conservative mainstream views.
While it is easy to criticize Wikipedia and Google for their gatekeeping policies, we also need to understand their problematic position: They need to find quick and easily accessible answers to complex and controversial questions. The 9/11 Truth Movement has an easier job as their main motto is “ask questions, demand answers”. They have done so by accumulating countless apparent inconsistencies in the “official” version of the event. As Tobias and I argue in the Telepolis-article, this is neither enough nor convincing because one can easily turn this around: In the rare cases in which alternative accounts have actually been spelled out, one can find just as many inconsistencies (if not more) as in what they call the “official story” of 9/11. But usually the movement does not even develop any kind of narrative. Instead they just collect lists of apparent inconsistencies, operating as anomaly hunters, as we argue. However, whether you are a journalist, historian, wikipedian or search engine provider, listing doubts and open questions is not enough. Your task is to provide answers. If the 9/11 Truth Movement wants to be taken seriously, they have to do exactly that. Otherwise, they should not be surprised if they keep getting excluded.
My first mini shitstorm and the crisis of the comment section
It was an interesting experience for me to publish with Telepolis. Their audience is not only far bigger than that of an average academic article, it is also very different. Numerous articles of some of the German protagonists of the Truth Movement have appeared here and the forum is full of their supporters. Thus, it wasn´t surprising that our article received over 470 comments within a week and the feedback was overwhelmingly negative. However, the majority of the comments didn´t even address our main arguments. Instead, the article apparently has functioned for many as nothing but an initiator to continue old debates. This is disappointing as we hoped to go beyond this point by tackling the roots of the conflict instead of its symptoms. But what I observed was extremely unfruitful discussions which did not lead anywhere. Of course, this is nothing new but rather just another example for the crisis of the comment section. The constantly unproductive discourse in this format has already motivated major news sites like the German Süddeutsche Zeitung to close down their comment sections. This is also another proof of the participatory dilemma: Participation is limited by participation. Needless to say, this is a very unsatisfying development and we need to find new ways to allow for constructive online discourse as also Sascha Dickel has argued.