Cass Sunstein wants to re-educate you

Cass Sunstein, professor of law at Harvard and Obama’s “Information Tsar,” gets his proto-fascist freak on in Conspiracy Theories, wherein he forwards the thesis that, conspiracy theorists are bad, because they endanger government anti-terrorism policy,  whatever that policy may be,  therefore conspiracy theorists need to be thwarted by a strategy of government-sponsored infiltration and re-education.  Government needs to fight back against independent public thinking!  I kid you not.


Sunstein’s full list of publications does not list “conspiracy theories” among them, at least not over the past couple of years.  It is definitely a topic he has written about before.  I wonder if this paper I linked is a forgery attributed to him.  That is first and foremost on my mind.

Update 2My second guessing was a mistake.  We’ve got a live one.  His Harvard web page does indeed list the paper and was published as, Vermeule, Adrian & Cass R. Sunstein. “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures,” 17 Journal of Political Philosophy 202 (2008).

h/t soilyeti.

The existence of both domestic and foreign conspiracy theories, we suggest, is no trivial matter, posing real risks to the

government’s antiterrorism policies, whatever the latter may be.

Sunstein does not argue the merits of government anti-terror policies, nor does he argue the demerits of alternative theories of government behavior to any extent.  These are assumed.  Government policy (whatever it may be) is good.  Counter-vailing interpretations are bad.  

Our primary claim is that conspiracy theories typically stem not from irrationality or mental illness of any kind but from a “crippled

epistemology,” in the form of a sharply limited number of (relevant) informational sources. Those who hold conspiracy theories do so because of what they read and hear. In that sense, acceptance of such theories is not irrational from the standpoint of those who adhere to them. There is a close connection, we suggest, between our claim on this coun and the empirical association between terrorist behavior and an absence of civil rights

and civil liberties.10 When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy theories.

Apparently, Cass Sunstein believes that the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the US must be due to a lack of civil rights, liberties, and varied sources of information.  Quite an indictment of America, Cass.  His reasoning?  Many Muslim countries have even fewer rights and information sources than America, and they have more anti-American conspiracy theories than we do!   What an epistemologist par excellence!

a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the

machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.

If I understand Sunstein correctly, certain theories concerning the collapse and subsequent bail-out of Wall Street may be construed as CT, owing to the indignation regarding the virtual complete non-disclosure of the entire event by the most powerful people in the world.  

Of course some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true…

…Our focus throughout is on false conspiracy theories, not true ones.


Hale Epistemologist, please tell us how you distinguish between true and false conspiracies!  Uh okay, that must be the focus of your next paper.

Anyway, back to 9/11, which is really what I, Cass Sunstein, am talking about:

In a closed society, secrets are not difficult to keep, and distrust of official accounts makes a great deal of sense. In such societies, conspiracy theories are both more likely to be true and harder to show to be false in light of available information.21 But when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long. These points do not mean that it is logically impossible, even in free societies, that conspiracy theories are true. But it does mean that institutional checks make it unlikely, in such societies, that powerful groups can keep dark secrets for extended periods, at least if those secrets involve important events with major social salience.

That must mean that 9/11 conspiracies are as good as dead in our free and open society, so there’s no reason to continue writing the paper on why and how conspiracy theories must be stopped by government intervention in our free and open society, because either the society is relatively open and free of  conspiracy theories or it is closed and constrained and becomes a petri dish of conspiracies.  Sunstein seems to think we are an unmentioned third variety of society, a free and open petri dish of conspiracy theories variety.  Remarkable!  Sunstein’s “logic” would seem to suggest that the obvious remedy is to become more free and open, but Cass Sunstein has a slightly more interventionist attitude to the non-problem, that is nonetheless non-trivial and poses great risks.

II. Governmental Responses

What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.

Yes, yes, yes, but wait: that might run afoul of the first amendment bullshit that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Repealing the First Amendment might be seen as “heavy-handed.”

(2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.

Effing, brilliant, professor!  Tax free speech not occurring in the free speech zones.  Except the real hardcore fascists will label you as a tax and spend liberal, which is an unbeatable argument.  Also, first amendment concerns?  Or perhaps you were thinking about an executive order that circumvents congress?  Fuck if I know, I just hope you make it to the Supreme Court.

(3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.

Marshaling actual arguments is great in theory, but discovery can be messy, once you break out the black boxes, and such.  Unless you’re talking about pure propaganda, in which case, nevermind.

(4) Government  might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech.

Mouthpiece mercenaries?  Counterspeech commandoes?  Yes, Yes, YES!  When in doubt, privatize all government function.  Or are you just looking for a job when your current gig runs out?

(5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions.  However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

Sunstein doesn’t say why he even brought up Strategies 1 and 2 in the first place, but abruptly abandons them with a vague reference to effects, costs, benefits, and “that each will have a place under imaginable conditions.”  Instead, he long-windedly moves on to what he regards as a currently acceptable purpose of overt and covert propaganda and “cognitive infiltration:”

3. Cognitive infiltration

Rather than taking the continued existence of the hard core as a constraint, and addressing itself solely to the third-party mass audience, government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories, arguments and rhetoric that are produced by the hard core and reinforce it in turn. One promising tactic is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. By this we do not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions.  [Nor do we mean that agents provocateurs will incite violence or other illegal acts in order to discredit them…but, hey, why NOT?]  Rather, we mean that government efforts might succeed in weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.  How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology [because I said they did, without proof or reason.  Plus, I’m not a psychologist or sociologist.].  Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior, their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts.  Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity [cognitive diversity?  Sounds a little PC to me].  We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.  In one variant, government agents would openly proclaim, or at least make no effort to conceal, their institutional affiliations. A recent newspaper story recounts that Arabic-speaking Muslim officials from the State Department have participated in dialogues at radical Islamist chat rooms and websites in order to ventilate arguments not usually heard among the groups that cluster around those sites, with some success.68  In another variant, government officials would participate anonymously or even with false identities.  Each approach has distinct costs and benefits; the second is riskier but potentially brings higher returns. In the former case, where government officials participate openly as such, hard-core members of the relevant networks, communities and conspiracy-minded organizations may entirely discount what the officials say, right from the beginning. The risk with tactics of anonymous participation, conversely, is that if the tactic becomes known, any true member of the relevant groups who raises doubts may be suspected of government connections. Despite these difficulties, the two forms of cognitive infiltration offer different risk-reward mixes and are both potentially useful instruments.

I honestly don’t know why Cass Sunstein is pussyfooting around with complex theories, however sound.  If government exists to execute the will of the people, there are plenty of other ways to do that.


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    • EJvH on January 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

    my god, CF. i can’t believe you really said what you said.

    your post was more damaging to me than BushCo. I expected that kind of shit from them. but YOU? people like you? i thought some of us were better. i guess not. i guess not.

    pouring your anger out and singling out JEW and ZIONIST.

    my god. i just can’t believe it.

    sadly, i agree with your assessment of Obama and Sunstein. but what you said… i just still can’t believe it.

  1. it turns into incoherent rant.

    As to the prospect of this particular paper being forged,planted, a dis-information psy-op or cointelpro operation the message is still the same thing.  People are obviously NOT HAPPY about the current state of affairs.

  2. other than having a little trouble picking up your editorial content (the brackets are just not contrasty enough for my eyes) this is a really good piece.

    Though I’m just not sure what all the fuss is about.

    • Edger on January 15, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Just how does Sunstein suggest infiltrating and discrediting himself and the administration, anyway? 😉

    “A Great Little Racket”: The Neocon Media Machine

    Access to the gates of mainstream media has enabled the movement to actually implement and market its objectives to America.

    The attainment of this power owes a great deal to the early neocons who saw value in becoming “gatekeepers” of information and ideas. Starting with Irving Kristol’s early days at Commentary, the movement gained a voice, but one largely aimed at intellectual and academic elites. In fact, the evolution of the neocon movement parallels the growth of its founders as publishers and media figures. Later, when Bill Kristol founded the Weekly Standard, the neoconservatives could present specific policy objectives to Washington elites.

    Not by any accident, the neoconservatives’ time of greatest influence on U.S. foreign policy coincided with the explosive growth of mass media outlets from which they could promote their policies. The omnipresent fluttering American flag on Fox News exemplifies the new über-patriotic packaging through which the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and the escalation of tensions with Iran are marketed packages.

    When asked why the Weekly Standard and Fox News have increased in popularity over the past few years, Matt Labash, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard responded that it was “because they feed the rage. We bring the pain to the liberal media. I say that mockingly, but it’s true somewhat. We come with a strong point of view and people like point of view journalism. While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We’ve created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket. I’m glad we found it actually.”

    • Edger on January 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    to discredit Sunstein?

    Are you some kind of cognitive infiltrationist planted here to fight back against independent public thinking?

    • Edger on January 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm


    Scott Ritter, former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991-98, is facing charges involving internet sex with a 15 year old. It was a sting.


    “The officer assumes the identity of a minor,” said Assistant District Attorney Michael Rakaczewski, who is prosecuting Ritter’s case. “What happens is [the detective] basically waits for an individual, such as Mr. Ritter, to contact him. From there he engages the defendant in sexually explicit situations, and in this case it culminated in the defendant exposing himself.”

    Ritter has for years been highly critical of US foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq, and more recently Obama’s AfPak “surge” and his expansion of predator drone strikes…

    • pfiore8 on January 15, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    do we let them get away with this? cause they’ve been doing a heck of a job following this line of thinking. they’ve been working it for eight years now and counting.

    and i ask again: who are the real terrorist?

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