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.



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  1. Were you able to follow the link to that paper, or did you find it elsewhere? For some reason it wouldn’t work over here, and I’d like to see the whole thing and make an addendum to my post if possible. You got a PDF you can send, perhaps?

    • Yeah, that link was dead, so I found another via Google Scholar. You should be able to get it via Social Science Research Network:

      If that doesn’t work for whatever reason (I don’t know if I’m only able to download because I’ve got a university postgrad account), let me know and I’ll email you my copy.

      • That works – thanks! I’ll have a read over it now.

  2. Hmm, see, here’s the problem with 9/11: we know that Roosevelt (and Churchill re: Coventry) knew certain attacks were going to take place and allowed them to occur, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that other American administrations might do this. I don’t know that I’d characterise this kind of reasoning as ‘crippled’. When one sits back and thinks, ah, we have had two major attacks on US soil this century, and the president knew about one of them in advance – it’s not pure insanity to think also, I reckon there’s a 50/50 chance the president know about the other one in advance too.

    • Perhaps, but d’you not think you might be varnishing the ‘troofers’ a little bit here? I mean, speculating that the Bush admin might have had specific advance knowledge of that attack is one thing (and personally I don’t see how an administration that incompetent could’ve kept a secret that big, especially for 9 years), but then you get to the topic of why. It’s in the course of explaining the ‘why’ where troofers normally come unstuck, and you’ll get everything from freemasons to mossad to halliburton dragged up as a potential motive.

      • Yeah, I’m not saying they’re right. I’m just pointing out that politicians have previous. The fact that Roosevelt knew ahead of time was kept quiet for a couple of decades. 9 years is easy. And be wary of falling into the trap of saying that because Bush was incompetent, so was his entire administration.

  3. Oh, and BTW, I find your remark at the start of this post quite unlike you. Certainly, if public servants never want to be disagreed with, they should say or publish nothing disagreeable – but come on. Surely going back and looking up Sunstein’s works is a commendable way of trying to determine what his beliefs might be! I’ve hardly done him a disservice by citing his previous work.

    • Yeah, that first paragraph sounded worse than I’d intended it – it was the last part I wrote, and you can probably tell! It wasn’t meant as a dig, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking at someone’s past record to see how they would perform in the position they’re applying for – otherwise how would you know which Supreme Court Justice to appoint, for example?

      In fact, I’m surprised nobody flagged this up when it came to confirming Sunstein in the Senate. The reason I think it didn’t happen is because Sunstein used to publish at a prodigious rate, and there was so much other stuff for his GOP opponents to bash him for. But this brings me to my point of concern.

      Writing as an academic is often quite different from being responsible for implementing public policy; there’s greater scope in academia for being imaginative, for making controversial arguments in the hope of stirring up debate, for critically questioning the assumptions & practices of the political status quo. All of these things are the life blood of so many academic disciplines.

      I worry that in this hyper-partisan climate, it’s not possible to demonstrate these qualities AND hope to work in/advise a government, because an opponent will dig up an old paper they wrote and say “aha! This person thinks all this crazy shit! He’s dangerous!” In reality, how you perform in your job might be considerably different to the theories you’ve put down on paper. I know that my teaching practice is quite distinct from the things I’m arguing for in my masters assignment, and would certainly not want a school to decide whether or not to hire me based solely on that masters.

      So I just don’t want a situation to arise where brilliant & provocative people cannot have positions in politics because of those qualities which made them so impressive in academia. If that happens, you just get a long line of drab box-tickers who never stray from orthodoxy.

      Oddly enough, I’m not all that big fan of the technocratic Sunstein. Touchy-feely, bleeding heart sociology is much more my cup of tea.

      • I’m with you on that for the most part. With Supreme Court justices etc. academic work from their past is not always a good indicator of how they will rule as a judge.

        On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Sunstein was appointed to his current position because of his academic work, not in spite of it. His function is to advise the president on these very matters, and presumably he was chosen because his past work suggested his advice was the kind Obama could get on board with.

        And while I find this worrying – that the thought-directors of the country have thoughts so divergent from my own – Sunstein is in the grand scheme of things not a big deal. The president in the US, and the executive office in general, has a lot less actual power than many people in the UK realise. So I admit to rabble-rousing a little bit! But the overall popularity amongst the political class of ideas like Sunstein’s makes me quite sad, reinforcing as it does my perception that the elites really do have no respect whatsoever for us proles and are convinced that, despite the human fallibility they are quick to identify in others, they really do know what’s best.

  4. Hey, what’s the point of having a rabble if you can’t rouse ’em every once in a while! You may have a point that Sunstein was appointed because of his academic work; the only question is which academic work? On this I can’t properly answer, because I’m not sure what his department does. I know it’s got something to do with markets because he was praised by quite a few free-market conservatives (,, and wasn’t highly regarded on the left. From that, I assumed that this piece wouldn’t have many implications for his job, but I’m hardly speaking from a position of authority.

    But as you showed in your second post, his argument was spectacularly tone deaf to people who care about civil liberties, and the only way his piece doesn’t have quite troubling implications if it fits within the quite narrow national security frame I wrote about earlier. Either way, there’s certainly nothing libertarian about his ‘paternalism’.

    • My understanding was that he is a professor of law, which probably has little to do with markets. From the titles of his publications, it appears that he uses his legal background to dabble in social sciences – which is pretty cool – but which also has serious implications for how I might judge his soundness on actual legal issues, especially ones relating to the Constitution.

      Like most Americans, I have a deep knee-jerk suspicion of anyone who wants to fiddle with the Constitution. Some people are open about it – Jesse Helms, if I remember rightly, used to call for a Constitutional Convention with alarming regularity, but at least he was going about it using the proper procedures. Anyone who wants to fiddle with the Constitution unofficially is even more suspect – Sunstein appears to believe that the right to free speech applies only insofar as that speech adds constructively to the democratic process. I tell you frankly, that weirds me out. Not because it’s unreasonable – yeah, I’d like more speech of that kind as well – but because it would seem to circumscribe a human activity I consider as natural, and unstoppable, as any more prosaic biological process like e.g. sneezing.

  5. […] The Bleeding Heart Show ponders whether we should just ban stupid conspiracy […]

  6. It’s in the course of explaining the ‘why’ where troofers normally come unstuck, and you’ll get everything from freemasons to mossad to halliburton dragged up as a potential motive.

    Nobody’s entirely sure of Osama’s motivation, either! Sure, motive – or the lack thereof – is usually a pretty fair indicator, but if there’s evidence that points towards a more unlikely conclusion it’s only really an argument from personal belief.

    Via a good post from Greenwald, by the way, it’s possible that Sunstein’s proposals (if enacted) would be illegal:


    • Well, if a trifling matter like the law is going to get in Sunstein’s way, it looks like he’ll have to troll the David Icke forum all on his lonesome. Not the most reward of hobbies, methinks.

      • Hah! Well, I suspect the crafty bugger’s been logging onto football messageboards under Rod Liddle’s pseudonym.

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