How a Viral Video Bent Reality

Mr. Bermas, who came on to help with the film’s second edition, told me that “Loose Change” drew attention because it was better produced than other videos in its genre, and because it came out several years into the Iraq war, at a time when trust in many institutions was declining and many Democrats (and some Republicans) were rightly concerned about government cover-ups and misdirection.

“There was a large sentiment in this country that people felt they were being lied to,” Mr. Bermas said.

New technology helped, too. Unlike pre-internet conspiracy theories, which had to be passed on through books and pamphlets, “Loose Change” was available free online. Fans uploaded it to sites like Google Video, the now-defunct YouTube competitor, where it was viewed millions of times and got translated into multiple languages.

The “Loose Change” team also hit on other creative distribution strategies, selling DVDs in multi-packs, and encouraging fans to leave copies behind in laundromats, post offices, hotel lobbies and other public places where strangers might pick them up. When fans wanted to spread the film on their own, they allowed it, even if it meant uploading it to a torrent file-sharing service or passing around pirated discs.

“We didn’t care,” Mr. Bermas said. “We wanted the message to get out, period.”

“Loose Change” never made its creators rich, but the film became a cultural touchstone and attracted a number of high-profile fans. Rosie O’Donnell, then a host of “The View,” raised doubts about the official Sept. 11 narrative, and Joy Reid, now an MSNBC host, praised the film on her personal blog. (Ms. O’Donnell did not respond to a request for comment, and Ms. Reid has said that her blog was hacked.) Charlie Sheen expressed interest in narrating a version of the film, Mr. Rowe said, which would have been financed by Mark Cuban, the “Shark Tank” billionaire, although the deal never materialized. (In an email, Mr. Cuban said he thought the film was “ridiculous” and that the talks never went beyond initial discussions.)

Jonathan Kay, a Canadian journalist who wrote a book about Sept. 11 truthers, told me that the success of “Loose Change” turned conspiracy theorizing from a passive hobby into a social activity, and encouraged a new generation of conspiracists to try their hand at media-making.

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