The Spectacle Blog

Staving Off Conspiracy Theories With… Conspiracies

By on 1.15.10 | 4:30PM

Glenn Greenwald on his blog today makes a troubling observation about the academic writings of Cass Sunstein, Obama's head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2008, Sunstein published a paper that, if it is reflective of his regulatory style now that he's in office, should give you pause. It is, Greenwald explains,

a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-"independent" advocates to "cognitively infiltrate" online groups and websites -- as well as other activist groups -- which advocate views that Sunstein deems "false conspiracy theories" about the Government.  This would be designed to increase citizens' faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists.

Greenwald delves into the concerns raised when the man in charge of monitoring the government's policies relating to privacy and information quality has openly advocated such methods. Greenwald concludes:

It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein's desire to use covert propaganda to "undermine" anti-government speech so repugnant.  The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned -- rationally -- to distrust government actions and statements.  Sunstein's proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is.  In other words, people don't trust the Government and "conspiracy theories" are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

In other words, conspiracy theories exist because there are conspiracies.

Apart from the many constitutional and ethical questions a policy of "cognitive infiltration" would raise, it also seems guaranteed to exacerbate the one problem it is intended to solve. If you stop to think about it, conspiring to stamp out conspiracy theories is just a horrible idea. If you have a group of people worried about the government taking away freedom of speech or forcing some political order on them, the worst way to respond is to take control of their forums by stealthy means or planning to infiltrate their numbers to ease the workings of the government.

In fact the flaws in Sunstein's thinking that Greenwald highlights brings to mind one instance where the Obama administration already has validated conspiracy theorists worst fears while trying to address them -- the April DHS report warning of the rise of "right-wing extremism" from anti-abortion activists and veterans. Prior to that report, there was no concrete reason for anti-abortion advocates or war veterans to believe that the government was surveilling them. But after that report they could certainly be forgiven for an elevated mistrust of the government.

But should those people -- or really anyone else who might entertain a conspiracy theory -- comprehend the views of the OIRA chief on conspiracy theorists, they will definitely become even more resolute in their suspicion of government officials and in their opposition to exactly the kinds of policies that Sunstein is trying to make more popular.

UPDATE:

Reading through the paper, I can't tell if Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, the co-author, are serious. The paper could be a joke. I don't know; I probably don't get legal humor at all. But it's interesting that in the conclusion the authors briefly acknowledge my point in this blog post:

Some conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If government can dispel such theories, it should do so. One problem is that its efforts might be counterproductive, because efforts to rebut conspiracy theories also legitimate them.

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