Cass Sunstein wants to re-educate you (v.2)

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

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.

Update  Let’s be perfectly clear: Sunstein is literally advocating a government conspiracy against those “conspiracy theorists” he claims are damaging to governmental purposes.  Let that sink in.

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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    My original diary is here:

  2. gives me the heebie-jeebies:

    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. […] In another variant, government officials would participate anonymously or even with false identities.

    So, let me see .. Mr. Sunstein does not want me to be paranoid about government officials flying a false flag to generate false discourse mocked up to be general discussion among the citizenry .. among other things he does not want me to be paranoid about.

    So, he suggests government officials flying a false flag to generate false discourse mocked up to be general discussion among the citizenry to combat it.

    This is what concerns me about this .. on other blogs we already see things like deflection of criticism of the Obama administration that in some cases makes very little if any logical sense .. even to the extent of saying that criticism of Obama of any kind, whether true or not isn’t “constructive”.

    If, when this happens, this is not a member of the Obama administration saying this themselves, it might as well be.

    Sunstein does not want me wondering about this .. so why is he suggesting doing that very thing that makes me wonder about it?

    • Edger on January 16, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    to have the heebie jeebies. If you’re nervous about the government watching you and discrediting you, it’ll keep you in line, he figures.

  3. …..  it would be amusing, except……  he’s a high level government appointee with what looks like massive paranoia, pondering how best to inflict it upon others, and we’re all sitting in our jammies with our cheetoes, feeding data into a private company mining it for profit and selling it back to the government, so they can judge whether we’re conspiring against them.

    Okay, whatever.

    Here’s Glenn Greenwald in Salon, starting off with a quote from Sunstein’s paper, which rationalizes such behavior as being okay if the person(s) wielding it have good intent- by their own definition :


    “Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.”

    But it’s precisely because the Government is so often not “well-motivated” that such powers are so dangerous.  Advocating them on the ground that “we will use them well” is every authoritarian’s claim.  More than anything else, this is the toxic mentality that consumes our political culture:  when our side does X, X is Good, because we’re Good and are working for Good outcomes.  That was what led hordes of Bush followers to endorse the same large-government surveillance programs they long claimed to oppose, and what leads so many Obama supporters now to justify actions that they spent the last eight years opposing.

    * * * * *

    Consider the recent revelation that the Obama administration has been making very large, undisclosed payments to MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber to provide consultation on the President’s health care plan.  With this lucrative arrangement in place, Gruber spent the entire year offering public justifications for Obama’s health care plan, typically without disclosing these payments, and far worse, was repeatedly held out by the White House — falsely — as an “independent” or “objective” authority.  Obama allies in the media constantly cited Gruber’s analysis to support their defenses of the President’s plan, and the White House, in turn, then cited those media reports as proof that their plan would succeed.  This created an infinite “feedback loop” in favor of Obama’s health care plan which — unbeknownst to the public — was all being generated by someone who was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret from the administration (read this to see exactly how it worked).

    In other words, this arrangement was quite similar to the Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher scandals which Democrats, in virtual lockstep, condemned. Paul Krugman, for instance, in 2005 angrily lambasted right-wing pundits and policy analysts who received secret, undisclosed payments, and said they lack “intellectual integrity”; he specifically cited the Armstrong Williams case.  Yet the very same Paul Krugman last week attacked Marcy Wheeler for helping to uncover the Gruber payments by accusing her of being “just like the right-wingers with their endless supply of fake scandals.” What is one key difference?  Unlike Williams and Gallagher, Jonathan Gruber is a Good, Well-Intentioned Person with Good Views — he favors health care — and so massive, undisclosed payments from the same administration he’s defending are dismissed as a “fake scandal.”

    This is the same sort of mindset used by religious evangelical fundamentalists who think it’s okay to “lie for the Lord” if the end result is to save a soul from eternal damnation.  The true believers really do want to confer everlasting eternal bliss, and fear a death as only an end.  The power structures which abuse their misplaced devotions merely wish for their energies to be used for perpetrating certain economic policies, thus we have the 21st Century Church of the Billionaire’s Tax Cut as being the most popular denomination in the DC beltway.  Do unto others ?  Quaint.  Now rise up, PTL and pass the ammo.  

  4. …it’s pretty obvious some of Sunstein’s recomendations are operable there.

    • Wom Bat on January 16, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    “crippled epistemology” directed against critics of a myth that’s dependent on our ignoring various laws of physics. Anyone suppose the irony of that has occurred to Sunstein?  

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