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The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories

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January 18, 2010

Cass Sunstein is a Harvard-educated legal scholar who began his career in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and moved on to become a Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.  President Obama appointed Mr. Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  In case you’re wondering what that bureaucracy does, a visit to its website will reveal this:

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is located within the Office of Management and Budget and was created by Congress with the enactment of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (PRA).  OIRA carries out several important functions, including reducing paperwork burdens, reviewing federal regulations, and overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.

On January 12, Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website, pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  Here is some of what Mr. Tencer had to say about that paper, while quoting fellow critic, Marc Estrin:

Sunstein argued that “government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories.”  He suggested that “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.”

“We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI,” Estrin writes at the Rag Blog, expressing surprise that “a high-level presidential advisor” would support such a strategy.

Estrin notes that Sunstein advocates in his article for the infiltration of “extremist” groups so that it undermines the groups’ confidence to the extent that “new recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides.”

At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald (an attorney who has litigated cases based on Constitutional law issues) expressed outrage that President Obama would be so closely tied to someone with such views:

There’s no evidence that the Obama administration has actually implemented a program exactly of the type advocated by Sunstein, though in light of this paper and the fact that Sunstein’s position would include exactly such policies, that question certainly ought to be asked.  Regardless, Sunstein’s closeness to the President, as well as the highly influential position he occupies, merits an examination of the mentality behind what he wrote.  This isn’t an instance where some government official wrote a bizarre paper in college 30 years ago about matters unrelated to his official powers; this was written 18 months ago, at a time when the ascendancy of Sunstein’s close friend to the Presidency looked likely, in exactly the area he now oversees.

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What is most odious and revealing about Sunstein’s worldview is his condescending, self-loving belief that “false conspiracy theories” are largely the province of fringe, ignorant Internet masses and the Muslim world.  That, he claims, is where these conspiracy theories thrive most vibrantly, and he focuses on various 9/11 theories — both domestically and in Muslim countries — as his prime example.

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders.  Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

Sunstein also advocated the use of  “credible independent experts” to be hired and paid by the government to add a veneer of credibility to government positions.  The relevance of this point to the controversy over Jonathan Gruber (the MIT professor who received undisclosed payments to promote the President’s healthcare plan) resulted in a situation where that issue became the most widely-discussed aspect of Greenwald’s piece.  By taking issue with Greenwald, Paul Krugman took advantage of the opportunity to get a little egg on his own face with a blog posting at his New York Times-based site.  Greenwald had no difficulty exposing the flawed rationale of Krugman’s retort on January 16.

I would like to see the debate refocus on the original point:  the idea that the government should get involved in debunking “conspiracy theories”.  That term is used by all types of pundits to invalidate any point of view contrary to their own.  As Daniel Tencer explained in his Raw Story piece, Sunstein used the term “crippled epistemology” to support the contention that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust.  I believe that Sunstein and his ilk have it backwards.  By their constant attempts to tar “the Internet” as the wellspring of so many “conspiracy theories” – they are acting to limit the number of trustworthy sources of information with their own counterintelligence tactics.

The greater question concerns why it would be so important for the government to get involved in this type of activity.  In the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, there is the obvious concern that Al Queda or some similarly-inclined group would want to cultivate an online network of kindred spirits who might potentially be of service to such an organization.  Does that mean that anyone who suspects some degree of cover-up concerning some aspect of that tragedy should be treated as a potential “enemy combatant”?  What other “conspiracy groups” would be targeted by such operations?  Who would determine whether a particular conspiracy theory becomes the focus of such an effort and what would be the criteria for making such a determination?  As Glenn Greenwald’s January 15 essay demonstrates, once the government embarks on such a course, there is unlimited potential for abuse.  Worse yet, the government’s use of such tactics should cause any such government “information control” efforts to self-destruct.  Greenwald put it this way:

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, this is a battle the government has already lost.  A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.