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Do Public Concerns Over Misinformation Affect or Restore the Credibility of the Official Media? The Case of 9/11 Terror Attack


Journalism is currently under a state of flux as new digital platforms unleash innovative practices while at the same time fostering the creation and spread of disinformation and hoaxes. As such, the contemporary societies are under siege as misinformation, post-truth, fake news, and alternative truth increasingly undermine the very core of democracy. Driven by citizen journalism, foreign actors, and the proliferation of cable news and talk radio, West (2017) notes that modern information sources have become contentious, leading to a steep decline in public trust in traditional journalism. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has particularly heightened public concerns over misinformation as individuals and scholars continue to struggle to understand the dynamics of the crises that have claimed millions of lives over the last two years (Pennycook and Rand 2021, p.388). While the distortion of facts and truth was disseminated through word of mouth, tapestries, and manuscripts in the past, modern technology has created new vectors, including social media platforms. Although misinformation and fake news are not new phenomena, the technical tools that exist today have proved to be a logarithmic multiplier of the impact of false information (Fernández-Muñoz et al. 2021, p.245). Among the most critical effects created by misinformation is the distrust of the mainstream media. Unfortunately, public concerns over misinformation do not restore official media’s credibility because this traditional journalism significantly fails to meet contemporary consumers’ preferences for immediacy, partiality, transparency, and post-publication corrections. A wide range of psychologists, including Douglas et al. (2017), have noted that conspiracy theories trigger higher emotional arousal compared to factual news, a tendency that lowers the public willingness to turn to official media in case of misinformation. Besides, there is a heightened concern that official media have fallen prey to nuanced efforts by parties such as politicians and business people to throttle their independence.

The case of 9/11 attacks

The current study details how and why public concerns over misinformation adversely affect the credibility of information from reputable news organizations. To achieve this objective, the study draws from a wide range of burgeoning literature and theories on the psychology of misinformation. The literature review findings are complemented by a case study on the 9/11 terror attacks and how misinformation about the event has impacted the credibility of the official media. The 9/11 attacks were a series of suicide attacks and airline hijackings that were committed by al-Qaeda, an Islamic extremist group in 2001 against targets in the United States (Ilardi 2009, p.172). These attacks, which went down as the deadliest terrorist acts in US history, caused extensive destruction, claimed thousands of lives, and triggered enormous efforts by the government to combat terrorism. Kellner (2004) noted that the shocking global event denominated public attention and provoked reams of discourse, publications, and reflection. A May 2002 HBO film, In Memoriam, argued that the attack was the most documented event in history as it was documented by a wide range of parties, including documentary filmmakers, news crews, and amateur photographers and videographers. Conspiracy theories appeared over the internet just a few hours after the attack, and to date activists’ groups such as the 9/11 Truth Movement still argue that some facts were hidden from the public by the official media (Sampson 2010, p.7). The intense and prolonged coverage of the event makes it an ideal case study in analysing how public concerns over misinformation impacts their preference towards official media.

The misinformation effect

Misinformation is broadly defined by scholars such as Loftus (2005) as misleading or false information that is unwittingly shared to mislead or deceive the recipients. Misinformation is disseminated in a number of ways. For instance, Lewandowsky et al. (2012) notes that the timely news coverage of unfolding events creates room for error and occasionally requires corrections. As a case in point, the death toll after the 9/11 attack in the United States was incorrectly reported during the occurrence of the event, and the accurate information could only be reported after the disaster came to an end. Lewandowsky et al. (2012) notes that a piece of information that is considered “correct” at any given point can later turn out to be erroneous. Apart from the errors that result from the piecemeal approach to knowledge construction, there are other various sources of misinformation, including rumours, fiction, and governments and political propaganda. As argued by Lewandowsky et al. (2012), the human culture has traditionally depended on people passing on information, making rumours, myths, and fiction an important source of misinformation. For instance, in 2006, the majority of the Democrats believed that the George W Bush administration either assisted the terrorists or took no action to deter its occurrence despite having critical information on the impending terror attack. Similarly, the Bush administration also juxtaposed the 9/11 attack and Iraq, identifying the nation as the frontline in the “War on Terror” (Reese et al. 2009, p.777). However, these conspiracy theories did not have significant traction in the mainstream media (Lewandowsky et al. 2012, p.108).

Loftus (2005) argues that the misinformation effect often arises when one is exposed to misleading information that impairs their memory. This could be explained by Allport and Lepkin’s (1945) observation that repeated exposure to a statement increases its acceptance as true. The scholars’ classic study on rumour transmission indicated that simple repetition is the strongest predictor of belief during wartime rumours. In the absence of a consensus, the repetition effect tends to create a perceived social consensus, which serves to solidify and maintain belief in misinformation.

Concerns over misinformation

A survey conducted by Pew Research Centre (2016) shows that most Americans are concerned over fabricated news stories, with 64% of them saying that these stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of the current events and issues. This perception is shared across different demographic characteristics, incomes, partisan affiliations, and education levels. Pew Research Centre (2016) survey of 1002 Americans also indicated that people had a fair amount of confidence in their ability to detect fake news, with 35% of them stating that they often view political news stories online that are made up. A similar study conducted by Kiousis (2001) shows that people are generally sceptical of the news emanating from official media channels but do rate newspapers with the highest credibility, followed by online media and then television. In other words, Kiousis (2001) found that the public opinions on official media credibility are correlated to the media outlet.

In line with a wide range of cognitive ideologies, including the backfire effect, one can argue that public concern over misinformation affects the credibility of the official media. Lewandowsky et al. (2012) notes that in complex real-world situations, people tend to refer more to information in line with their attitudes and become more immune to corrections, such as that retractions may backfire the initially held beliefs. The backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes one to reject evidence that may counter their beliefs. Due to these biases, people who have been subjected to misinformation may not positively perceive contradicting information from official media. A study undertaken by Prasad et al. (2009) has shown that respondents’ willingness to believe in a particular kind of information is the primary causal agent for misinterpretation rather than the presence or absence of correct information. When subjected to information challenging their previously held beliefs, the participants came up with counterarguments or simply remained unmoved. The backfire effect is not limited to the correction of misinformation, as Byrne and Hart (2009) note that messages intended to promote positive health effects tend to often backfire. Such messages are the campaigns that are often aimed at reducing smoking, which backfire and ironically lead to more smoking rates.

Dowson-Zeidan et al. (2014) are among the scholars who have directly explored whether official media can be trusted amidst the public concerns over misinformation. In their study, these scholars focus on Tunisia and Libya, two countries where state broadcasters continue to dominate in news coverage. The collected data shows that Libyan believe that each broadcaster has an agenda that is at odds with truthful reporting. This means that the public concerns over misinformation adversely impact the credibility of official media. The participants in the study undertaken by Dowson-Zeidan et al. (2014) gave examples of times when programs on the state broadcaster were taken off the air because they were critical to the government and contradicted with ideologies purported by the ruling officials.

Official media in a post-truth environment

Much of the studies on misinformation and fake news revolve around being in a post-truth environment, where contemporary media wilfully engage in misleading, deceptive, and deceitful communication. Gualda and Rúas (2019) note that, in the age of information and manipulation, televised infotainment and fiction provide the audience with a reality constructed according to their desires, cognition, and ideas so that it can be appealing to them. Post-truth journalism entails the manipulation of the truth, shaped and embellished to the taste of the audience (Gualda and Rúas, 2019, p.180). In a post-truth environment, the ability to discern facts from the manipulated narrative is compromised, and therefore public concerns over misinformation may not enhance the credibility of official media. Besides, it’s worth noting that the official media construct reality according to the audience’s desires, particularly in the face of competition from a wide range of other media (Gualda and Rúas, 2019, p.180).

Gualda and Rúas (2019) argued that public concerns over the credibility of information are often influenced by the attribution of quality, perceived trustworthiness of the message, the source or the media, and depends on the simultaneous interaction between multiple dimensions, including bias and precision. In order to become credible to the public, the journalism practice has historically been incorporating science-based observation and verification techniques, including the use of photography, the reporter’s signature, code of ethics, and the policy of correcting errors (Träsel et al. 2019, p.459). This means that the source alone is not an adequate indicator of information credibility, implying that the use of official media does not necessarily increase the perceived credibility of the information. As noted by Träsel et al. (2019), providing evidence to support information credibility is not a necessity but an obligation. This means that official media may not always include supporting evidence or justification for its information, and therefore the concerns over misinformation among the audience may not increase the credibility of the official media.

Conspiracy theories

A wide range of scholars, including Enders et al. (2021), have also attempted to explore the dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation by different media. Uscinski (2018) has defined a conspiracy theory as an alternative explanation of a historical, ongoing, or future event, different from what is offered by a certain group of people, such as the ruling government. Most of the conspiracy theories accuse a powerful group of conspiring and hiding some critical information from the public. Conspiracy theories have a variety of explanations of what happened during the 9/11 attack, often involving insider knowledge by President George Bush and his advisors (Hagen 2011, p.3). These conspiracy theories are often spread through social media platforms rather than official media. The first 9/11 conspiracy theories appeared on the internet just a few hours after the terror attacks and argued that the US government staged the attacks with the aim of justifying the decision to launch warfare against Iraq. The fact that the collapse of the World Trade Centre, which was the key target of the attack, was announced in a live report by BBC and CNN has been cited by conspiracy theorists as evidence that the attack was part of an inside-job plot (Griffin 2012, p.4). As noted by Ren et al. (2021), the public tends to be significantly interested in conspiracy theories compared to factual news because these theories trigger higher emotional arousal. This means that the public may not turn to official media in case of misinformation because the conspiracy theories are often shared through social media platforms. Supposedly an official newspaper wrote that the 9/11 attack was carried out by Iraq, while an unofficial media reported that the president secretly plotted that attack and paid an Al-Qaeda group to execute it. While the official post is more likely to be true, the second one is more likely to be engaging and would effectively trigger a reaction and grab the attention of the audience. The study undertaken by Enders et al. (2021) has shown that the more people are likely to see or read conspiracies in all manner of political and cultural events, the stronger the relationship between the beliefs in dubious ideas and the use of social media platforms.

A study undertaken by Gruzd and Mai (2020) has further shown that conspiracy theories and misinformation driven by social media platforms and politics are much harder to root out using fact-checking and directing people to credible sources of information. The study found that the widespread use of #FilmYourHospital on Twitter made the pandemic look like a hoax as people would take pictures and videos at their nearby hospital with no cases of Covid-19. The coordinated propagation of the hashtag and conspiracy theories on the pandemic manipulated the public conversations by making them appear more popular than they were (Gruzd and Mai 2020, p.6). Prominent accounts, including pro-Trump users boosted these tweets, and within a few days, the wave of propagation has spread outside the nation. This expansion occurred despite the fact that official media were offering more accurate information on the Covid-19 pandemic, proving that false and misleading claims that are driven by social media technologies and politics are much harder to root out. As argued by Theocharis et al. (2021), while the internet has always served as a meeting place for conspiracy theorists and fringe groups, social media has added a new layer to this reality. However, Theocharis et al.’s (2021) study has shown that not all social media platforms should be painted using the same brush as Twitter has more adverse effects on conspiracy beliefs than other platforms, including Messenger, WhatsApp, and YouTube.

Media Political Bias

Political bias has been a feature of mass media since its birth, mainly because the official media has significantly been funded by powerful social groups, including political parties. Although media deregulation processes have been focusing on placing the majority of broadcast media in private hands, there stills exist a strong government presence in broadcast media in many countries, including developed nations. Croteau et al. (1997) note that governments serve as the organizing structure in all nations, influencing the activities and freedom of the media. The tension between media agency and structure creates varying political biases. A study conducted by Weatherly et al. (2007) found that the public perceives CNN’s headlines to be more liberal as compared to Fox News’ headlines, which were described as biased towards conservative political positions. Fox News has long been accused of favouring the Republican Party and of right-wing bias, mostly by those on the left. As showed by Weatherly et al. (2007), most people in the country have accused Fox of being too focused on opinion content and not sharing “fact-based” reality. To this end, this group of the audience may not turn to official media such as Fox News for information in cases of concerns over misinformation.

A study undertaken by Bennett and Livingston (2018) has also shown that the declining public confidence in institutions, including those mandated in releasing official information, undermines the credibility of the information and opens the public to alternative information sources. In the case of the 9/11 attacks, the heavily trafficked and networked media linked in and out of broader networks for political foundations, Astroturf and political organizations, think tanks, and political organizers. Bennett and Livingston (2018) have noted that what appears to be misinformation to some people may actually engage a significant part of the public at deeper emotional levels, particularly when linked to sensitive aspects such as racism, welfare nationalism, and anti-immigrant themes. Once established among sizeable populations, this alternative information threatens the centrist democratic order and consequently impacts official media credibility (Bennett and Livingston 2018, p.135).

Information complexity and heuristics

Approximately two decades after the 9/11 terror attack, a search on YouTube related to the attack turns up thousands of hits, while a Google search yields more than 8 million results. For many young people, including students, who have come of age post 9/11, the internet is the first source of information on the event. However, the numerous and varying information and conspiracy theories they are likely to encounter from the internet are likely to be more confusing than helpful in understanding the event. Faced with information complexities, scholars such as Goldstein and Gigerenzer (2002) have shown that people tend to leverage on mental shortcuts or heuristics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows one to solve a problem, pass judgment, or make a decision with minimal mental effort. While heuristics can free up limited cognitive resources and reduce the burden of searching through information complexities, it can also lead people to miss critical information and act on unjust biases, prejudice, and stereotypes (Goldstein and Gigerenze 2002, p.75). Similarly, the challenge of going through and choosing between multiple sources of information creates room for confirmation bias, pluralistic ignorance, halo effects, and motivated reasoning (Newman 2009, p.15). Newman (2009) have argued that people tend to pragmatically construct mental representations that allows them to function in the complex societies. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency among people to believe information that confirms their existing beliefs while rejecting the information that contradicts them. This concept is similar to motivated reasoning, which refers to the tendency to use reasoning skills to believe what one chooses to believe instead of using the skills to determine the truth. This means that people are less likely to turn to official media in case of concern over misinformation because heuristics and similar cognitive biases are easier than conducting complex analyses. The 9/11 attack is uniquely easy to recall, and therefore the public is more likely to rely on media that confirm their beliefs in case of any concern over misinformation.


The in-depth research into the misinformation effect and related phenomena has illustrated how psychologically vulnerable people are to fabricated information, fake news, and entrenched cognitive biases. Unfortunately, a review of a wide range of literature has also indicated that the public concerns over misinformation do not increase the credibility of official media because of the biases, prejudice, and distrust associated with these media. Twenty years after the occurrence of the 9/11 attack, the scepticism that was first revealed by the 9/11 conspiracy theories has been spread through various media, the internet, and metastasized. This case study highlights the failure of the official media to disseminate fake news and conspiracy theories by leveraging on their perceived credibility. Misinformation and fake news tend to spread when people do not trust the media, creating an audience for conspiracy theorists and fake news creators to spread their messages to. In line with a wide range of cognitive ideologies, including the backfire effect, heuristics, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning, one can conclude that public concerns over misinformation affect the official media’s credibility. As radical parties and movements continue to rise in power, fake news and disinformation will, unfortunately, become part of communication strategies for destabilising opponents, and traditional journalism, under the political influence, will critically lose its credibility. This observation emphasizes the need to revise political communication scholarship and theories to problematize dominant assumptions on the flow of information between institutional actors, the public, and the media.


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