Case Sunstein: Feds should "cognitively infiltrate" online conspiracy groups

Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, recently suggested that the feds should "cognitively infiltrate" conspiracy theorist hang-outs and anti-government groups online. Over at Huffington Post, former BB guestblogger Arthur Goldwag, author of the fantastic book Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, lays out why the government "shouldn't resort to secret agents and bought-and-paid-for claques and shills and ringers to promote its ideas." From HuffPo:
 43Ancients 04Images Eyes God Great Seal 01 Sunstein's proposal was not issued under the auspices of the government, but in an academic paper. 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" surveys the existing scholarship on the origins and characteristics of conspiracy theories and contemplates whether or not governments should try to neutralize them. In general, it takes a social sciences approach, arguing that conspiracy theories are neither legitimate political ideas nor symptoms of a psychological disorder, but are rather the inevitable distortions of closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems. Using government agents to inject "cognitive diversity" into those communities, it suggests, just might provide the body politic with an antidote to the thought contagions they inspire.
"Cass Sunstein's Thought Police"


  1. So, the government should infiltrate the conspiracy theorist groups? Well, I guess those groups have been assuming that to be the case for years, so might as well give them some justification…

  2. Bad citation – it’s not 2008. The correct full citation is:

    Sunstein, C. R., Vermeule, Adrian (2009). Conspiracy theories: causes and cures. The Journal of Political Philosophy 17(2), 202-227. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2008.00325.x

    1. the PDF is dated January 15, 2008, but now that I look it’s published as a Harvard Public Law working paper. It’s the same article, though.

  3. How does their being “inevitable distortions of closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems,” prevent them from being `legitimate’ ideas?

    Until government officials and their academic advisers stop being so bloody condescending, they should expect to encounter many more “closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems.”

    1. How does their being “inevitable distortions of closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems,” prevent them from being `legitimate’ ideas?

      ..because distortions are infrequently accurate, which marginalises their legitimacy?

      Until government officials and their academic advisers stop being so bloody condescending, they should expect to encounter many more “closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems.”

      And people with those “closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems.” will continue to be sidelined as has been policy since day dot.

      Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that all conspiracies are baseless. I am just saying that the incensed rage which you are exhibiting in reation to this is the very thing that the government relies on to make conspiracy theoriests appear to most people as crackpots.

  4. Oh, I’m sure the BB commenters will sniff out any feds we’ve got lurking.

    *Looks around shifty eyed*

  5. (Enters, takes off Foster Grants, straightens suit)

    Hi guys. What’s the word on the street? Any good dirt about the government?

  6. Great…

    They’ll “Prove” a number of conspiracy theories out there by doing that. At least it won’t be immediately laughable to say “Fess up! You work for the government! That’s why you deny the Necrophilia of Dubya (kissing the skulls at Skull and Bones) and JFK’s assassination being only Oswald…”

    Really, is it worth our tax dollars to make that last sentence true!?

    Another thing, while perhaps the government is concerned with the “Right wing millitia” groups, the real “Conspiracy” crowd is full of extreme intellectuals (also social autistics, recluses, etc.) who actually COULD “Build a bomb” and plant it dozens of ways, or otherwise disrupt/destroy cities -if provoked. If never provoked they’ll just live their lives raving about conspiracies but doing squat/diddly. However, they don’t have piles of guns, bombs at homes and tend to know the “I don’t talk to police, I want a lawyer” stuff, can hire lawyers and have squeaky clean police records. Any harassment, a few might well move up to action and nothing the government could do could prevent it.

    I’m into “Conspiracy” myself.

    I actually see it as if anything a flattery of the government and mankind in general.

    Look at how things are messed up. Now, if we have Reptile overlords manipulating mankind to cause misery and pain because they feed off the negative vibes, well at least there’s a REASON for it. What’s man’s excuse? And of course the push to get things better, ushering in a new Zeitgeist, an age of “Aquarius” truly… a good thing.

    But a conspiracy theory is flattery of government, elites and mankind in general. The sad reality might well be no lizards, no true “evil cabals of business, religion, ultra rich, Jews and the Girl Scouts” controlling mankind. Just a bunch of disorganized by size and bureaucracy governments, rich people stealing what they can while the gettin’ is good and a bunch of apathetic sheep who’ll really scream and riot when their comfort runs out but not a second before and not a finger lifted to prevent it, not through mind control but just lazy and uncaring.

    Also, for the nature of “Conspiracy Theory” consider:

    Above all conspiracies there is “The Conspiracy”. All of the shadow elites bow to it. The Reptilian overlords, the Masons, the Skull and Bones, the Bilderburgs, the Rothschilds, the British Nobility, the Learned Elders of Zion, the 9, and even the Girl Scouts all pay homage to “The Conspiracy”…

    But what is, “The Conspiracy”? Simply put, it is the vulgarization of the word to attack and discredit those who seek to expose the truth. Say one person goes “I studied these different phone companies rates and they are all the same to the penny and they all allow open license for the phone company to stack on hidden fees…” well they scream “Oh, you are just a Conspiracy Theorist!” and that puts you in the same level as the person who calls the late night talk show and goes; “Marshuns are sending out row-bots to spy on us that look like dogs and cats but when you cut them open they send out ray-de-oh waves that make yew think yew see blood and guts and stuff…”

  7. Wouldn’t this just make conspiracy theorists more paranoid and distrustful? Conspiracy theorists don’t usually get very far anyways. It’s hard enough to get people to notice real, well-documented crimes. Why waste time on JFK and Vince Foster and 9/11 when people don’t seem to care about genocides, war and torture?

  8. Focusing specifically on the efficacy of the proposal — I ain’t buyin’ it. A person of a “diverse” or even nuanced viewpoint wandering into a meeting of conspiracy minded folks isn’t likely to be accepted, much less have much influence. That’s why groups like this form in the first place — they’ve already chased out or run away from rationality.

    To make such a plan work, you’d need some sort of elite infiltration corps of highly charismatic people with the skill to subtly “seduce” the membership and gain credibility without either acting as agents provocateur and aggravating the situation, or bucking the self-reinforcing dynamics enough to be rejected.

    People like this are probably already successful in business or politics, and unlikely to want to work in such a bland and unrewarding position.

    1. Try telling Mark Thomas that “People like this are probably already successful in business or politics, and unlikely to want to work in such a bland and unrewarding position.”

      If British Aerospace can find convincing people to infiltrate arms protesters to see what they’re up to, I’m fairly sure that SIS are more than capable of it.

  9. “Inevitable distortions of closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems.” Good description of reality, man.

  10. When it comes to the right-wing extremists, I’m in favor of a good bit more than infiltration. Those are the people like Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, and their like, who act on their twisted beliefs. And when they do, people die. It’s time those movements were (at least) neutered.

    1. I think there’s a big difference between policing actions (or intended actions) and policing thoughts. I don’t have a problem with policemen tapping phones and steaming open letters, if they’ve convinced a judge that a group is conspiring to do actual (as opposed to cognitive) harm. But I have a big problem with the government trying to covertly or subliminally influence ideas. They should do it openly and loudly and unashamedly–and they shouldn’t have to pay intellectuals under the table.

  11. The feds have infiltrated political extremist groups for decades, and it’s pretty well shown that they are doing it now. But their MO is generally not to change hearts and minds, unless by “change” you mean “terminate”. And really, why bother trying to change the minds of people who are dead-set against you when you could just as easily frame and imprison (or even kill) them?

  12. Why don’t they just go after people who think for themselves. You know, cut out all those middle men. Isn’t that the real threat anyway?

  13. right, so when a group exhibits the signs of “the inevitable distortions of closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems” they need to be infiltrated? does that mean they have already infiltrated FOX News, Free Republic, the U.S. Congress, Scientology… oh wait, he’s not kidding? why does the U.S. government have such a fetish for sadistic psychopaths to serve as policy shapers? If only they would toss John Yoo into the clink where he belongs, there might be some disincentive for these sickening freaks.

  14. And the reasons why the government shouldn’t craft policy in an attempt to secure desirable outcomes are…. ?

  15. I’d suggest reading the paper itself rather than following the Huffington Post and its OH NOES!!!!

    The question is what responsibility, if any, does the government have to disabuse people of false, harmful beliefs. And if it does have such a responsibility, what methods should it use to prevent the spread of those beliefs.

    The paper uses the example of 9/11 conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories that prompt terrorism, but I think a more neutral example would be the “controversy” over vaccination: a number of anti-vaccination activists have promoted false beliefs that ultimately compromise public health. What should the government do to combat that?

    I think most would agree that the government does have the authority, even the responsibility, to ensure that the people have the information they need to make informed decisions about their health. That is a “cognitive infiltration,” but we accept it. So the question isn’t whether “cognitive infiltration” is acceptable, but what sort.

    Thinking about it, the government already targets its message to a particular audience (say, those most likely to be affected by a disease) and to their particular beliefs (for example, explicitly stating that one of their false beliefs about vaccination, that it causes autism, is false). The government produces flyers, posters, commercials, and workshops; its representatives appear on radio and television to spread its message. And we accept that.

    So why shouldn’t they go to “conspiracy theorist hang-outs and anti-government groups online,” too? If a particular bulletin board is the source of a false and dangerous meme, what would the harm be in a government-sponsored poster – identifying themselves as such – rebutting false statements?

    The suggestion that the government might engage in anonymous or pseudonymous infiltration or even censorship is disturbing and I think incompatible with an open society, but then, reading the paper, I get the impression that Sustein includes those for completeness; the examples he offers of the government actually engaging in that behavior uniformly end in failure and embarrassment of the government.

    1. First of all, I’m hardly screaming “no.” I point out that Sunstein’s approach is heuristic, and I admit that the article has been unfairly caricatured. However there is some regrettably creepy language in it that really undercuts its intentions:

      “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. 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).”

      I think that 1) and 2) might have been proposed in a semi-facetious spirit, but the fact that they are proposed at all (and that the authors can imagine circumstances when they might be appropriate) is unfortunate.

      I believe that governments have the obligation to defend themselves against calumnies and to promote their own policies, but I think they need to do it openly and directly, not with secretly paid proxies. Otherwise, they are just pouring oil on the flames.

      1. Having read a few law review articles, of which this paper is a relative, I’d say that options 1 and 2 are pretty much straw men–although I do notice the lack of an option zero, do nothing.

    2. ‘The paper uses the example of 9/11 conspiracy theories … but I think a more neutral example would be the “controversy” over vaccination’

      well you don’t control those priorities. The Obama administration has proven itself to be congenitally incapable of stating outloud that Bush pushed for a war in Iraq from the onset because his handlers who rigged the Florida in 2000 had already determined such a policy. Given this performance by Obama, it’s only reasonable to expect that any measures which his administration may take that attempt to follow this paper will more likely be directed at people who are intensely critical of the Bush administration over something like Florida 2000 or Iraqi-WMDs-set-to-go-off-on-45-minutes-notice rather than stuff about vaccination. I’d expect Obama to order that efforts be made to discourage any bad thoughts about Bush before he even came close to try influencing anyone who may still be obsessed with the birth certificate stuff. Don’t assume that this paper’s suggestions are going to be turned towards the ends which you may find favorable. All signs indicate that if it’s put into action at all, it will be done in a bad way.

    3. I agree with the tenor of your post: the government, in a free & open democratic republic, needs to know what’s being discussed, and what the public thinks. hence, my Ok with monitoring in general of these public discussions.

      But I also agree with your point about secret or covert participation in those discussions.

      By all means, if the Government has something to say, and feels that it is important enough to say in public, then it should say so: BUT it must identify itself as the speaker: or as the moving force behind the speaker.
      Otherwise, it’s “Banana Republic” time.

      OT:It almost seems like the CIA is pushing for domestic adoption of the techniques it’s used to such effect in foreign nations, huh? What kind of “trial balloon” is this article, anyhow?

      OT: Oh, btw, how’s that US torture program wind-up coming along? Are the US Government scientists going to reveal what their “research” into “enhanced interrogation” has shown to be the best and fastest technique to “get the job done”? Or are those technical findings “classified”?

  16. Let’s remember that powers like this seldom go away…Obama has done away with virtually none of Bush’s excesses. And the Left should remember that at some point the Right will be back in power…and will have this program all set up and running when they get there.

    1. The power to troll websites anonymously, spreading pro-government messages? Shocking. How ever will the republic survive.

  17. 2) makes the most sense. Then we won’t have to waste our time listening to crazy poor people, but can still enjoy conspiracy theories from those who can afford the luxury, like the commenters at Fox News.

  18. Loling hard. So rather than further efforts to educate people in media and cultural literacy and allow adults to decide for themselves, we’re going to try to stop the spread of ideas we disagree with? However correct or incorrect, I know of no one who has been harmed by a conspiracy theory yet. ‘Course, it’s not to me to know everything.
    rofl soi soi soi
    … Oh, oh wait. That’s right, in ‘merica we don’t teach literacy, we teach obedience. Sorry, forgot where I was. Riiiight, okay now I’m on board. I totally see a reasonable need to prevent other humans from making up their own minds and if at all possible, to prevent them from ever knowing that there is more than point of view on anything in the world. I for one welcome our new overlords.

  19. Publicly accessible internet sites are just that: and gov people are part of the public too.
    And (speaking generally) I like my government to know what’s going on in public. They ought to be listening in and observing these public discussions.

    But should they be posting? Not if they are on the job.

    We Canucks used to outright bar our civil servants from any and all public political activity, even in their leisure hours: and it produced a tolerably non-corrupt bureaucracy. That has changed (the political activity part – the civil service is still tolerably non-corrupt), but I do not think that the servants of the public, the public service that is, (and who else are these “government agents”?) ought to be “opening their mouths” in these public, political discussions at all, while they are on Joe Public’s dime, without first ID’ing themselves as being public servants, and that they are in fact speaking as such.
    It’s a matter of the basic honesty of the civil service.

    Why taxpayers would want to fund someone to be posting to internet discussion groups, at a time when many other needs go begging, is beyond me.

    As to simply listening in on and observing these groups, as I said, I like my government to have a finger on the public pulse. Extending that metaphor, I just don’t want them injecting anything into circulation – into the public’s bloodstream – without the public’s knowledge.

    Weirdly, though, I’d say that if those same government officials monitoring those Boards did decide to post while they were on their own time, I’d be ok with that.

    It’s the “unofficial-yet-official government approved” stamp on the “additions” to the discussions that would render them illegitimate, in more ways than one, I think, if such were done using the taxpayers’ monies….as all government actions ultimately are.

    Long story short: government monitoring of public discussions is ok, but government participation in same, without explicit acknowledgment of that fact to the participants or intended audience, is not ok.

    Outside (of course) of actual factual presently-in-progress criminal investigations. That’s a whole other kettle of something else!

  20. “Inevitable distortions of closed-off, self-reinforcing belief systems.”

    If that’s the way this Sunstein fool interprets Conspiracy Theory he obviously hasn’t been paying attention. Rather than being “closed-off”, Con Theory is one of the last truly bi-partisan pastimes!

    It’s an incestuous, cluster f*cked, group orgy of paranoia!!

    I’ve seen right wing nuts spewing left wing conspiracy nonsense while in the next breath, going straight back too their right wing rantings.

    It’s really quite amusing…but I don’t think there’s any way you could put a stop to it. Conspiracy related lunacy is about as infectious and resilient as the common cold!!

  21. Has anyone pointed out that Cory actually explores a similar idea in Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom? In his book, some people function as “missionaries” converting the luddite separatist clans who have removed themselves from larger society. And it’s done for their own good. Those people are far better off in the modern developed world. I know it’s unpopular, but I’m of a similar mind in this situation. I’m not for suppressing their free speech rights or their rights to assemble, but it would be helpful if these people were exposed to voices outside their own insane echo chambers.

  22. When you worked out the numbers, during Hoover’s reign at the FBI, the FBI was the sole supporter of the American Communist Party. His agents paid their dues. Meanwhile organized crime had carte blanche.

  23. Hold on a sec, here… If they approve this, does this mean I might be able to get a government job where I sit on the computer all day getting paid to come up with reasoned arguments that I don’t necessarily believe against true believers in various and sundry closed groups?

    Oh hell yeah, sign me up, I’ve been practicing for this my whole life!

  24. “For we are opposed around the world, by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy, that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence, on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of election, on intimidation instead of free choice. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations. Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned. No secret is revealed. That is why the Athenian Lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people, confident that with your help, man will be what he was born to be – Free and Independent.”
    – John F. Kennedy, 1961

    1. > John F. Kennedy, 1961

      That was a major Cold War speech by JFK at a time when he waa escalating Vietnam and trying to assassinate Castro. It’s funny how moonbats have since converted that Cold War speech into some kind of exposure of the Illuminati or whatever.

  25. This story has to be a hoax, put out by the tin-foil hat crowd.

    The most obvious purpose for this kind of campaign, would be to counteract public awareness of events that really were government conspiracies. Since everyone knows that such conspiracies must fall apart on their own- people can’t keep secrets, and the government isn’t competent enough to pull such things together- then this kind of history editing isn’t needed.

    Just like officer friendly says: if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.

    1. Add to religion: Marxism, Freudianism, and of course that theory which arose in reaction to the socialist revolutions of the 1830s and 1840s: Capitalism.

      Hell, let’s just call it “ideology”….

      1. Canuck, do you enjoy it when others paint you into an overly broad category with broad strokes? I know you don’t.

        so why are you doing it here, to others?

  26. On the topic of the paper, I think the unwritten preface is, “Given a government which is less competent than any expert in a given field …”. From what I can glean without reading it, I suspect the paper can be summarized as such: in the age of unfiltered free expression, a government claiming to serve its populace that makes bad choices must use all propaganda tools at its disposal to maintain the illusion of its expertise and the value to the populace it serves.

    Alternatively, it could prove itself an intelligent authority. If the government showed itself to make decisions that were superior to all other options, and in all ways (given non-omnipotence, at least demonstrate reasonable contingencies for non-optimal facets), then there would be no need for people to question its motives.

    Take my latest pet peeve: compact fluorescent light bulbs. My ideal solution: set a standard for lumens-per-watt and require either non-toxic materials (suitable for disposal at end-of-life) or a viable plan for preventing the release of toxins (sizable deposits on lamps, for instance, so people are enticed to return spent bulbs for recycling and recovering). The governments solution: support compact fluorescent bulbs exclusively, ignore the mercury inside, and assume the average consumer knows how to handle mercury. Inappropriate use of mercury like this will be the asbestos problem of 2050. People then will ask, “if this is dangerous, why did you use it without taking precautions?”

    —Jason Olshefsky

  27. Ideology = blinders: that was my response to Daemon.
    Observation determines truth: with ideologies, it’s quite the reverse.
    Did I say anything about any person in particular? Whom did I spill paint on? Whom did I “categorize with overly broad strokes”?
    I thought I was discussing ideas: and types of “closed” thinking.
    “Closed” to what, if not observation? was my intended point….all of these “isms” seem to me to be theories which simply care not for further observations, at all. For the truth is already known to them, or so they profess to believe: and they will brook no contradiction.
    Ideology conditions or, if you wish, pre-determines, what is perceived.
    And “ism”s are ideologies: that is, articles of Faith, which need no proof, other than belief.
    Oh yes, one more crucial fact: other people actually factually suffer when their rulers subscribe to ideology.

    1. i didn’t say others here, just others. You’re putting people into simple boxes. If you’re as open to new ideas as you profess then you should brook a little contradiction.

  28. The 1st sentence states “…conspiracy theorist hang-outs and anti-government groups online.” Everybody has something to say about the conspiracy theorists, but not a peep about the anti-gov’t bit. Let’s see… it’s ok for the US gov’t to target anti-gov’t people, but if China does it there’s an enormous outcry…. do I detect some double-standards here?

  29. Sunsteins position is at least a very reasonable option to consider. anti-vaccination fanatics have likely contributed to many deaths in the US during the last years.

  30. Oooh, that hurts.
    I’ve always thought that the boxes I put people in – their pigeon-holes – were complex and subtle enough, for the purposes of these anonymous internet conversations.

    But thanks for the good reminder: that words are never enough when it comes to being accurate about people. One needs some compassion too, if one is to understand the mistakes that others (or indeed entire groups and societies) make, and why.
    And thus, how to avoid making the same mistakes.

  31. Speaking strictly for myself: at the end of my “long day”, a simple box will be enough, I think.

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