A friend on Facebook uncritically shared a piece of crazy the other day. I know, your friends do, too. But here’s the thing: This friend is a normal. He’s not one of those once-rational legacy friends from high school you would never befriend today who litter your feed with nonsense. He knows that the Earth orbits the sun, that evolution provides the best explanation for the diversity of life, that our planet is warming up. He has spiritual, political, and artistic views, but he doesn’t think any of them take the place of factual reality. He’s a photojournalist and a fine one, a fine citizen, and a fine man.
And on Facebook he shared a mind-alteringly unmoored conspiracy video about the Sept. 11 attacks, adding: “Not saying yes or no ... but this is interesting!”
It was not interesting. What he shared was this video, from a conservative, crazy website called TellMeNow.com, titled, “VIDEO PROOF Showing No Planes Hit The WTC On 9/11.”
You can predict the rest. My friend is a normal, I thought. What on earth can this video show that gets over the bar with sufficient clearance that my normal friend would share it? Plus, you know—deadlines, procrastination, reality. So of course I watched the video. It’s 2:18 long, and it makes basically one claim: that a video of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center’s south tower shows the plane passing a building that, says the voice on the video, is “clearly behind the south tower.” Yet the plane’s wing disappears behind the building. According to the person who made the video, this is indisputable evidence of a “layering CGI glitch” (note the technical language), and thus the whole thing is obviously a hoax, something, something government control, media conspiracy, blah blah blah.
The video was originally posted May 27. When last I checked, it had more than 2.5 million hits.
When something is stupid beyond imagination, I know what to do: Walk away. Yet I couldn’t let it go. For one thing, my friend’s Facebook post was filling up with annoyed responses from his many other normal friends, and I kept thinking: How many hours have been wasted today by usually productive people who could have otherwise been … watching cat videos or something? I get that people can waste their time how they like, and freedom of speech means you can publish and share any addled, paranoid rant, but 2.5 million hits is 2.5 million wastes of 2:18. That’s 5 million minutes. That’s closing in on 100,000 hours that people spent watching this hooey.
I finally figured out why the pure wrongness of this particular waste of time wouldn’t let me go: Not that it was crazy, but that it was so provably—so easily provably—wrong. Global warming? That involves big data, statistics, and debates about weather versus climate, and there’s plenty of room for genuinely well-meaning people to fall into error. Evolution? Even most people who claim to understand it can’t clearly explain it, and you can forgive a certain amount of confusion. It’s frustrating having to argue about things like evolution and climate change, but it’s the cost of doing business in a world where everyone gets to talk, not just people who know what they’re talking about.
But this? This was making a very specific claim: The airplane magically disappeared behind a building that was behind the tower when we know the airplane was in front of the tower. This was a disprovable claim.
It took me about 10 minutes. The most obvious way for a plane’s wing to “disappear” behind a building would be for the building to be not behind the plane, as the narrator claims, but in front of it. A glance at Google Maps showed blocks’ worth of buildings south of where the tower stood. The video shows a distinctive archway atop a foreground building, with the building in question sporting three easily identifiable vertical elements at its apex. I couldn’t find a good street view in Google Maps, so I opened Google Earth.
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