Conspiracy Theories

Mary Rosh, Federal Agent

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Cass Sunstein, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has a plan for discouraging conspiracy theorists: Conspire against them!

Raw Story reports:

Cognitive Clarity
R. Crumb

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, co-wrote an academic article entitled "Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures," in which he argued that the government should stealthily infiltrate groups that pose alternative theories on historical events via "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine" those groups.

His paper does have some sensible things to say on the subject of political paranoia, but it periodically goes off the rails as well, and this proposal is where it gets the most deranged. Quoting the article itself:

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. 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.

Well, yes. If you send covert agents to influence the way dissidents think, you're going to magnify rather than tamp down their distrust. Nonetheless, Sunstein and his coauthor conclude by calling for "cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy-minded groups." They also endorse "enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals," though it seems to me that such groups cease to be "independent" the moment they're "enlisted." Of course, if there are independent debunkers out there, why would they need the government to direct their efforts in the first place? It's a peculiar worldview that thinks even skepticism needs to be centrally planned.