As I browsed Hulu’s streaming offerings recently, something unsettling caught my eye: an image of the Twin Towers, with the phrase “A CONSPIRACY OF LIES” in ominous block letters between the buildings. Among recommendations to watch Werner Herzog’s latest and IMAX: To the Arctic, Hulu’s “popular documentaries” section also promotes A Conspiracy of Lies: Flight 370 to 911, a film that suggests that a shadowy New World Order is perpetuating a wide-ranging hoax on the American public, involving the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks.
Hulu is not the only streaming service plugging conspiracy-theory movies, and Amazon Prime is arguably a more serious offender. Its recommendation algorithm pulls up the infamous 9/11 viral video Loose Change in its documentary section, a film that alleges that the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the United States government. Amazon Prime also hawks so-called documentaries like The Enemies Within, which claims that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barack Obama are secretly part of a radical anti-American agenda, as well as Alex Jones’s (who runs the conspiracy site InfoWars) film The Obama Deception, which argues that Obama was installed in the presidency as a puppet for a cabal of global elites. Netflix, too, offers an eye-popping array of conspiracy choices, including Zeitgeist, Zeitgeist Addendum, and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, a trilogy that also suggests that 9/11 was permitted and possibly carried out by the United States government.
I wasn’t surprised by the mere existence of these films. Loose Change and Zeitgeist, in particular, have had a home on the internet for years and gained enormous popularity on YouTube. What I was unsettled by is that they are presented alongside Ken Burns’s historical documentaries and March of the Penguins, with nothing to distinguish wild conspiracy narratives from those grounded in truth.
By categorizing these films in the same bucket as credible nonfiction films, Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix are implicitly endorsing 9/11 and Illuminati conspiracies as equally truthful as sober-minded nature documentaries. In doing so, they are aggravating the spread of false information on the internet. While these companies could elect not to stream these movies, as they have banned pornography from their platforms, they could also label them correctly, as fiction. These films do not need to be banished completely, as they provide insight into the perspectives of conspiracy theorists. (Plus, conspiracy films can be entertaining, and even funny, in a grim, campy way.) However, portraying them as ordinary documentaries is actively harmful.
What is particularly galling is that streaming services do not seem to care. An Amazon spokesperson informed me that the company did not have any information to share, Netflix did not respond to my questions, and a Hulu spokesperson told me “not sure if there’s a much of a story here for us.”
The amount of misinformation spread on streaming platforms is tiny compared with the torrents of falsehoods spread on search sites and social-networking platforms. But that does not excuse these services from worsening the problem, and what’s infuriating about this type of lie-spreading and conspiracy-mongering is how easily these services could remedy their irresponsibility. For companies like Facebook and Google, the sheer volume of user-submitted content has overwhelmed their grossly inadequate moderation efforts, and, despite pledges to get better at wiping wild lies from their platforms, they continue to struggle and fail miserably. (Just look at how misinformation on Facebook is egging on ethnic violence in Myanmar, or how quickly YouTube started recommending conspiracy videos about the Las Vegas shooting.)
Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix have a much smaller, less complicated problem, which means there is no excuse not to fix it. These companies all acquire distribution rights to films and then bundle them together in streaming packages. Unlike Facebook and Google, they have always stressed the ideas of curation and gatekeeping, highlighting their sophisticated recommendation services, which are meant to separate high-quality film and television from the junk. They are proud arbiters and sorters of content. There is no reason they could not reclassify and properly label 9/11 conspiracy documentaries as paranoid camp. (Unless, of course, the curators at these companies believe that Bush did 9/11. That would be a different problem.)
It would take minimal effort to stop this behavior. While the larger problem of false information on the internet remains difficult to remedy, this is a fix that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon could easily make. Their unwillingness to recognize or repair a small part of a much larger problem is more depressing than watching all three parts of Zeitgeist back to back.