Fighting conspiracy theories – or giving them credence?January 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Misc., U.S. Politics | 15 Comments
Memo to academics: if you ever want to go into politics, publish nothing. Don’t write a single word which can be sourced back to you, and certainly nothing as provocative as Cass Sunstein has had a habit of being. Libertarians have discovered this article he wrote back in ’08 on the topic of conspiracy theories. They are none too happy.
On page 14 of Sunstein’s January 2008 white paper entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” the man who is now Obama’s head of information technology in the White House proposed that each of the following measures “will have a place under imaginable conditions” according to the strategy detailed in the essay.
1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.
2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
That’s right, Obama’s information czar wants to tax or ban outright, as in make illegal, political opinions that the government doesn’t approve of. To where would this be extended? A tax or a shut down order on newspapers that print stories critical of our illustrious leaders?
I feel this is a little unfair to Sunstein, or at least locates the problems with his paper in the wrong place. From my reading of it, Sunstein actually dismisses the notion of either banning conspiracy theories or taxing those individuals/groups which hold them (since both, of course, are unworkable and abhorrent propositions).
His preferred method for dealing with these nutters is what he calls “cognitive infiltration”, which he describes as “weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.” If I’ve read him correctly, this basically means trolling internet message boards, and is a much tamer proposal than those he’s (erroneously, in my book) being criticised for.
But whose message boards to troll? The problem with Sunstein’s piece is that it’s ridiculously broad: there are conspiracy theories about the Kennedys; the CIA being responsible for heroin use in black neighbourhoods; the rulers of the world being secret lizards and Barack Obama being the antichrist/muslim/fascist/socialist.
Does a state really target all of these groups? Since Sunstein is so inspecific, it’s understandable that civil libertarians are up in arms about it. For me, I wouldn’t have ethical objections to this being practiced, providing it was targeted solely at undermining or disrupting radical and violent Islamist groups – or any domestic group which incites violence. In fact, I suspect that such a method is being practiced at Langely as we speak.
The question here is trust, and how a state can retain the trust of its citizens. Sunstein argues that even by being transparent and fulfilling Freedom of Information requests which debunk certain theories, you still won’t convince its ardent believers. This much is obvious; in addition to satisfying the conspirators’ fringe politics and/or their feeling of powerlessness, conspiracy theories are also sustained by the social interaction between people who believe them.
But whilst transparency can’t kill a good fairy tale, it can limit its scope and power. It seems to me that the only truly ethical & effective way of regulating conspiacy theories is by releasing as much factual information as possible and then allowing the consumers to do what they like with it. This won’t kill the conspiracy theory, of course, but it will undermine the argument that the state has ‘something to hide’, which can be a powerful recruiting tool. As I wrote in a slightly different context:
There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.
I think this is why many conspiracy theories have a libertarian component to them, and demonstrates why government action to regulate them would’ve been self-defeating. If you want to use the state to reduce the amount of make-believe on the fringes of the public sphere, you’re only going to reinforce those who believe the state has the power to do a bunch of other shady, manipulative things. By all means, let’s monitor & disrupt those who threaten the safety of others, but by doing anything other than that, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.