9/11 - Information Poor in the Digital Age

Curator's Note

When fall semester arrives, and the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th is near, I frequently ask my students to raise their hands if they were born prior to the year 2000. This exercise is a gut check for myself as I prepare to have the number of hands raised dwindle down to almost zero. The purpose of this submission is not to recount for you every detail of my own September 11, 2001. To do so might feel cathartic but misses the mark and the opportunity to provide context of the event to the current generation of media students. I will, occasionally, provide some details of my experience of the day, but I do so to illustrate the conditions on the ground and to give an understanding of the information landscape at the time.

I provide this information to illustrate to the next generation that the resulting confusion and media blackout produced a litany of unsubstantiated claims and dubious information about the unfolding events. The most outrageous information I obtained was from a uniformed police officer standing on the entry ramp to the West Side Highway at 125th Street. The officer informed me and the dozen other evacuees with me at the time that all of the bridge and tunnel crossings into Manhattan had been wired with explosives by terrorist saboteurs. He informed us that any hope of evacuation from the island was lost, and that New York City was under a military attack. Without access to up-to-date information through smartphones or social media, this was hard to substantiate. On the ground, however, panic ensued. One other evacuee suggested that he might try to swim across the Hudson River, an endeavor that would be sure to result in his death. ​

Image Credits:
"A multitude of mobiles!" by Salim Virji is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 
"Bucketworks Computers" by Pete Prodoehl is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
"DSC06951" by Phillip LeConte Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 
"IMG_3463-mod03" by sjtryon is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 
"IMG_8223" by lusciousblopster is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 
"Midtown, September 2001" by hankplank is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 
"Office phone" by Karolina Kabat is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 
"Twin Towers, New York" by Guillaume Cattiaux is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 
"typicalmyspace" by hmatt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 
"World Trade Center 9/11/01 attack memorial photo" by cattias.photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

SFX Credits (freesound.org):

Video Credits (Fair Use):
9-11 Summary (archive.org)
Evan Fairbanks (FOIA)
Keith Behrle (FOIA)
Mark LaGanga (FOIA)



Hi James,

I love this post and your video is a fantastic way to make that day more vivid for students.  I often feel like an imposter telling my story as I was 1500 miles away - but hearing from people like yourself who was more physically close and interweaving this experience with the events of the day, your personal experience and the stark contrast in how technology and media routines differed.  Thanks so much for creating this video we can use as teaching resource!


Everything is relative. I feel like an imposter for having had the stroke of luck to see the collapse from midtown rather than from inside the WTC/WFC complex. I had an 8am shoot scheduled at the headquarters of CIBC in World Financial Center. That shoot was rescheduled to 10am. That is the only reason I wasn't in closer proximity to the attacks.

I consider myself to be extraordinarily lucky. I think this is an opportunity to pay that luck forward by contexualizing the event to my students. I know that as the years march on, this snapshot in time will be lost to the annals of history. But, I've got breath in my lungs so I should use it.

Thanks, James, for this personal account.  Your story makes me wonder how September 11th would have been, or felt, different if social media was as ubiquitous then as it is now, and whether the availability of something like Twitter would have resolved, or compounded, the confusion and misinformation you described as central to your experience.

One of my clearest recollections of that day was the synchronization of all the mass media.  I remember the eerie lack of television commercials, the indistinguishability of one network's coverage from another, the common incredulity ... I find it hard to imagine the attainment of such unanimity today, given the fragmentation, polarization, and narrowcasting that define our contemporary media landscape.  I'm thinking about the work of Benedict Anderson, who wrote about the centrality of mass media to the formation of national community, and wondering how the commonality of that mediated experience might have contributed to the rapid retrenchment - for better or (probably) worse - of American identity in the days that followed.  A macabre thought experiment to be sure, but perhaps it's worth speculating about how contemporary media coverage of a similar event might unfold.

I also wonder how social media might affect how information is transmitted in an emergency situation. It almost seems as if there would be more information, but I wonder if there would be more accurate information or just more confusion (perhaps in the same ratios as experienced during 9/11 just more in total?). Also, is there any chance you could track down the name of that Benedict Anderson quote? I would love to read it.

Thanks for sharing this amazing post and video! While I was far away in Michigan during the attacks, putting it in the context of the communication technology that was available at the time reminded me what that day was like. I know that many in Detroit thought that another plane might fly into the Renaissance Center, our most distinctive skyscraper in downtown Detroit. There were so many rumors going around, and no way to know which was accurate until hours or days later.

After showing this to my students today, we discussed the concept of misinformation and disinformation. The incorrect report of multiple planes unaccounted for was an example of misinformation due to brevity and the unfolding catastrophe. It couldn't be corrected for many of us on the ground becuase of limitations in the technology.

The flip side of this is the flatfoot who gave us bad information on the West Side Highway. He engaged in DISinformation. The damage he was capable of doing was very narrow because of the media technology landscape at the time. However, with a smartphone and twitter account in that man's hand, you've got the potential for a LOT of panic. "#thecrossingsarebombed #noescape #wereallgonnadie"

The new media landscape cuts us both ways during a crisis.

I do not have anything else to add besides agreement that this is a powerful video that I also plan to use as a teaching tool in one of my classes later in the semester. Thank you for putting it together, James!

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