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Cass Sunstein’s Thought Police

January 27, 2010

A journalist I know who’s somewhat more receptive than I am to conspiracy theory told me about a high-ranking official in the Obama administration who advocates using federal agents–covert or overt, employees of the government or secretly remunerated independent experts–to “cognitively infiltrate” conspiracy groups in order to correct their “crippled epistemologies.”

The worst of it, she said, is that he defines conspiracists so loosely–as people who believe “that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event.” Practically any organization of political dissidents would qualify. Like, people who believe that the Vietcong didn’t really attack a US destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf, or that Nixon knew more about the Watergate break in than he admitted. Who believe that Cheney and Bush lied about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction during the build-up to Desert Storm, that JFK’s assassination didn’t happen as the Warren Commission said it did, and that American officials sold missiles to Iran to raise funds for Nicaraguan contras. Who’s to say that Birthers and Teabaggers and Truthers aren’t being targeted already? “Cognitive infiltration” may just be a fancy word for chat room trolls–but it’s downright Orwellian too, summoning visions of disinformation campaigns, agents provocateurs, and domestic spies.

The official is Cass Sunstein, the long-time University of Chicago law professor (he has since moved on to Harvard), who is currently serving as director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a department of the Office of Management and Budget. No obscure wonk, Sunstein is the author of countless books and articles; in fact he is a kind of a rock star in the left-leaning intellectual/policy world. He has been the consort of a number of extravagantly glamorous and brainy women (English professor Lisa Ruddick and classicist Martha Nussbaum; he met Samantha Power during the Obama campaign and married her in the summer of 2008) and is frequently touted as a potential Obama nominee for the Supreme Court.

Though he is detested as a wild-eyed leftist by the likes of Glenn Beck, who ridiculed him for his advocacy of animal rights and his supposed hostility to the Second Amendment, and at one point dubbed him “the most dangerous man in America,” the conservative establishment has generally been well-disposed towards him. “Mr. Sunstein…is no conservative–far from it,” wrote The Wall Street Journal. “But his writings on regulation and the herd mentality deserve a voice in the incoming Administration. From his new post as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs inside the White House, he would have an opportunity to put into practice some of the ideas he has written about as an academic.” (Click here to read the whole thing.) Sunstein has frequently come under fire from hard-line progressives, who are appalled by the same “minimialist” approach to regulation that won over the WSJ, not to mention his support for John Roberts’ appointment to the Supreme Court, his defense of John Yoo, his pragmatic opposition to prosecutions of members of the Bush administration, his support for FISA’s grant of retroactive immunity to telecoms, and his openness to Internet “censorship.”

Co-authored with Harvard Law School Professor Adrian Vermeule and published in The Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 (it can be downloaded as a PDF file here), “Conspiracy Theory” is a 30-page-long academic paper that

1) Surveys scholarship on the etiology of conspiracy theories (it takes a social science approach, concluding that they are formulated within closed cognitive communities that have limited access to alternative sources of information, and whose beliefs are self-reinforced by peer pressure–in short, that they are a product of distorted thought systems rather than psychoses, hallucinations, or demagoguery alone) and

2) Contemplates whether or not governments should try to contain or neutralize such theories, if and when they are presumed to pose a genuine threat to public safety.

Islamic conspiracism abroad, for example, drives Al Qaeda recruitment and encourages suicide bombers. Domestically, a white supremacist who believes that the US government has been hijacked by Satanic Zionists might feel justified in, say, blowing up the Federal building in Oklahoma City. Haitians who believe that HAARP was the cause of their recent woes might threaten US aid workers. But Sunstein and Vermeule aren’t interested in law enforcement per se–rather, they are asking (and “Conspiracy Theory” is no White Paper; its tone is subjunctive throughout) whether governments can effectively neutralize false ideas (and their presumption is always that the conspiracy theories that need to be combated are objectively false) by injecting correct ones into the thought systems that sustain them; whether information can be an antidote for a thought contagion. Here’s how they put it:

Extremist networks and groups, including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology. 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. 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.

Writing in Salon (click here) Glenn Greenwald ripped into Sunstein’s “truly pernicious” article; he made it sound like it advocated exactly the sort of propagandistic chicanery that Obama’s election was supposed to put an end to:

Note how similar Sunstein’s proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates. The Bush Pentagon employed teams of former Generals to pose as “independent analysts” in the media while secretly coordinating their talking points and messaging about wars and detention policies with the Pentagon. Bush officials secretly paid supposedly “independent” voices, such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, to advocate pro-Bush policies while failing to disclose their contracts. In Iraq, the Bush Pentagon hired a company, Lincoln Park, which paid newspapers to plant pro-U.S. articles while pretending it came from Iraqi citizens. In response to all of this, Democrats typically accused the Bush administration of engaging in government-sponsored propaganda — and when it was done domestically, suggested this was illegal propaganda. Indeed, there is a very strong case to make that what Sunstein is advocating is itself illegal under long-standing statutes prohibiting government “propaganda” within the U.S., aimed at American citizens.

Though I’m put off by his tone, I basically agree with the substance of what Greenwald said. I think in an open society the government has a sufficiently grand bully pulpit–not just speeches and press releases, but lobbies, PACs, campaign war chests, think tanks, celebrity friends and supporters–to argue its cases before the public; it needn’t and shouldn’t resort to secret agents and bought-and-paid-for claques and shills and ringers. I believe the police should confine their efforts to catching criminals rather than monitoring and manipulating political thoughts. I am a great believer in the right to free speech, even noxious, ignorant, ill-informed, tendentious, hateful, and objectively untrue speech (and as a blogger, I have been exposed to quite a bit of it–not all of which I have chosen to share with my readers).

Though governments can and should defend themselves against calumnies, the First Amendment doesn’t allow them to simply silence the people who purvey them; they have no choice but to tolerate the likes of Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, the Michigan Militia, and the White Aryan Resistance unless they catch them committing an actual crime. Some of the language in “Conspiracy Theories” is indeed as troubling as Greenwald implies:

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. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (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.

Exigent circumstances might require law enforcement officers to steam open letters, tap phone lines, and recruit snitches–but the last thing we need is a new COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program that was shut down in the early 1970s, a covert program to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters,” as one FOI-obtained document from the J. Edgar Hoover’s office put it). The US Senate’s Church Committee, which investigated COINTELPRO’s abuses, listed some of the FBI’s other targets:

The actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the titles of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Communist Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or deemed to be not sufficiently ‘anti-Communist’. The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of anti-war demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and included every Black Student Union and many other black student groups. New Left targets ranged from the SDS to the InterUniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, from Antioch College (“vanguard of the New Left”) to the New Mexico Free University and other ‘alternate’ schools, and from underground newspapers to students’ protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them.

But I have strayed far away from the Sunstein/Vermeule article. If you actually read it all the way through, you’ll quickly realize that it’s a lot less black and white, and a lot less Jack-bootish than Greenwald makes it out to be. Proposals one and two quoted above, for example, might even be offered semi-tongue in cheek (the authors indulge themselves with more than one joke in the course of the article).

“Conspiracy Theory” is not a government-issued policy brief. Both of its authors were full-time academics when they wrote it and its approach is generally heuristic–it floats one scenario after another, legalistically totting up their negatives and positives. It makes some philosophical assumptions too. For example, it takes it as a given that the truth is knowable; moreover, it presumes that it’s possible to distinguish between relatively innocuous conspiracy theories (the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or Roswell Space aliens) and more inimical ones (that the US government deliberately murdered 3000 innocents on 9/11/2001). It posits a government that is at least potentially benign–one that undertakes policies that are worth defending, that isn’t a tool of secret cabals, that is more than legalistic cover for a totalitarian power structure. If its definition of conspiracy theories is poorly worded and some of its proposals unfortunate, its context generally makes it clear that its authors don’t advocate an outright “ban” on any theories they don’t like (contra the ultra right wing World Net Daily’s recent sensationalistic headline: “Top Obama czar: Infiltrate all ‘conspiracy theorists.’ Presidential adviser wrote about crackdown on expressing opinions”).

As a collector and critic of conspiracy theories, I found much of interest in “Conspiracy Theory.” I think it’s been sorely mischaracterized on the Internet and caricatured beyond recognition by many of its critics (so what else is new?); I would recommend that anyone with an interest in conspiracy theories take the time to download it and consider it with an open mind.

But when all is said and done, I have to admit that I do disagree with both its analysis and its prescriptions. Like the ADL’s Rage Grows in America report (click here for my earlier post on it), it has had the unfortunate effect–one that it explicitly acknowledges as a plausible argument against responding to conspiracy theories–of feeding the conspiracy community’s grandiosity, of seemingly legitimating their claims. 9/11 Skeptics have already accused me and other writers of being bought off by the US government and Israel; articles like this one pour oil on the fire.

Sunstein and his co-author are much more sanguine than I am about the power of facts to defeat conspiracy theories. “Social cascades,” they write, “are sometimes quite fragile, precisely because they are based on small slivers of information. Once corrective information is introduced, large numbers of people can be shifted to different views. If government is able to have credibility, or to act through credible agents, it might well be successful in dislodging beliefs that are held only because no one contradicts them.”

I think they underestimate the sheer emotionality of conspiracy theory, the intensity and stickiness of its appeal to the limbic parts of the brain. Conspiracists–and by conspiracists, I don’t mean “anyone who disagrees with the government,” I am talking about people who believe in vast plots with countless actors, that unfold over generations and leave no objective traces (the conspiracies of the Learned Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, the New World Order, David Icke’s lizard people)–are angry and irrational, and they are often nurturing a deep sense of betrayal. There is a profoundly religious dimension to their thinking, which divides the world between the beleaguered elect they belong to and an altogether evil Other. This isn’t to disparage religion, but simply to acknowledge that conspiracy theories offer their appeal to faith, not to the critical faculties.

When I consider the costs and benefits of “cognitive infiltration,” I foresee scant likelihood of the government winning over any hearts and minds and an overwhelming probability–just look at what they are writing about this article already!–that it will undermine not just its ideals but its best interests.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jesse permalink
    January 27, 2010 8:32 pm

    Some notes (Qwik! Everyone scroll away!)

    P. 8: The idea that we live in an open or closed society is subjective as explained by real conspiracies that come to light. Trust is something leaders must continuosly earn. A natural “check” in the herd mentality.

    P.9: “…the self-sealing quality of conspiracy theories creates serious practical problems for the government…” This is why transparency and trust are so important. Yes, it may leave openings to an attack but to take action leads to resistance. As long as a classified status exists there will always be a distrust because there is no public trust. Like a mirror: Limited public trust=Limited trust in leadership.

    P. 10: I agree that education is a beautiful tool; but it isn’t free. Hence, the minority will have good sources of information. Sometimes the issue lies in not knowing what question to ask. We have all been asked, “Any questions?” The answer is no. Why? Because we believed we knew that was all to know.

    P. 13: Cascade: The role of reputation. “Bernie Madoff anyone?” Experiencing small conspiracies on a personal level opens the door of plausiblity for larger ones. It starts in the halls of every High School and continues onto office politics at the workplace. Character assasinations at the company picnic. A manager that read “Winning Friends and Influencing People” that tells a staffer, “I’m going to check on that for you.” Then closes the door and plays pacfuge on his Blackberry. Stealing credit, shifting blame, nepotism, fraternization, pretending to care, “networking”, whatever else one may call it.

    P17-18: I think the issue here crosses a line between what is representative government and master-pupil relationship. Elected leaders are not in power to lead the mass public in some Divine Right. They do not “teach” the public what is right or wrong. To hold true to office, in all honesty, representatives must act in popularity. The deference between what is “right” and what is legal. If the viewpoint becomes adversarial then bad things tend to happen. The best countermisinformation(SCRABBLE!) may be free public higher education.

    P23: I would like to see Sunstein volunteer to be a cognitive infiltrator himself, leading by example, through physical penetration…of the group. The risk-reward tradeoff deserves careful consideration.

    P25: “…there is a kind of intra-executive externality, with one agency failing to take into account the full cost of its actions to other institutions.” Why I favor a confederal government model.

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