Controlling 9/11 "crippled epistemology" via fake 'CIA' Internet Conspiracy Theories, COINTELPRO & "cognitive infiltration of extremist groups": Huge jackass/Obama Info Czar Cass Sunstein favors infiltrating conspiracy groups, planting disinfo, diversions
"....we will suggest below that if the hard core arises for certain identifiable reasons, it can be broken up or at least muted by government action." .... "We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. 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."
This is one hell of a chestnut. It seems obvious, in retrospect, the best way to conceal the truth of establishment shady business and institutionalized crime is to mix in a ton of bullshit in order to turn all the skeptics and inquirers against each other. Only now it's Obama's dang 'information czar' pitching the strategy!
Interestingly, the more I broaden my sources, the more I appreciate the broad spectrum of people that have cancelled their subscriptions to Establishment Bollox and the Lies of the Mighty Wurlitzer. It's amazing how so many features of Establishment Reality are so widely loathed from within so many different worldviews.
This important fact is what people like Cass Sunstein don't understand. Like faux Establishment 'Centrists', they believe that ontological truth, or even the 'optimal' policy outcome, is like @ the 50% mark between where the dialectical left & right goalposts are placed.
It's like Howard Fineman - accurately dubbed the Weathervane because you only have to look which way he's pointing to determine what reassuring centrist reality is today's hot item. Howard Fineman is the precise opposite of a 'conspiracy theorist' in Sunstein's world.
The Establishment's Hegelian social control techniques are obvious: just set the left and right goalposts, stir and repeat. Problem-reaction-solution. If one can influence both the left and right goalposts in the great false dichotomy, it makes the product of "centrists" far more acceptable. Everything floating around outside this parlor game is the prima materia of 'conspiracy' that the State should attack professionally, Sunstein says!
Sunstein's tidy worldview brushes over the complex role of deceptive bullshit operatives around there, laying the groundwork for stupid establishment narratives. For example, what are we to make of the ever-shady Gerald Posner, spoonfed the FBI goodies on China? Or Adam Ciralski, helping Blackwater's Erik Prince perpetrate some classic exposure-threatening graymail about U.S. covert ops. Are these merely products of rotten epistomology? [PD Scott with a solid takedown of Posner - Scott's the real deal with The War Conspiracy and more here.]
Anyhow Cass Sunstein was appointed by President Obama as some kind of info czar. Interestingly he wrote a paper about how to manipulate conspiracy theorists by attempting to throw their groups off the Hegelian deep end, thus opening an opportunity for defamatory information warfare. Fascinating stuff, and it's got Alex Jones incensed!!
More links, then some snippets: Obama Information Czar Calls For Banning Free Speech, Sunstein’s Paper Provides More Evidence COLINTELPRO Still Operational, etc.
This whole thing reminds me of how the JFK conspiracy scene is managed as "A Story/B Story" wherein there are two alternate, mutually irreconcilable narratives. Dribs and drabs of facts supporting A and B (roughly, CIA/Mafia and Lone Gunman, usually) can be offered and safely paddle around on the History Channel.
Let us share a few choice links about how the CIA type control system AKA the Intelligence Power controls the World of Conspiracy. This is good stuff -- this is exactly how Mama Cass wants the world of conspiracies organized.
For The Win: Fintan Dunne called the Sunstein approach years ago!
My favorite all-in-one shotgun approach comes from Fintan Dunne of BreakForNews.com: BreakForNews.com : The CIA's Internet Fakes
The CIA Fakes is a catchphrase term to describe a group which includes:
-- Covert Operatives of the CIA, NSA and DIA; of the U.S. Corporate/Military Industrial Complex; of the intelligence services of U.K. Spain, France Holland, Germany, and Russia.
The primary objectives of the CIA FAKES are:
-- To leverage the Fakes into position as the leadership/spokespersons
The questions about 9/11 were bound to be asked, the important
Bravo, Mr. Dunne, Bravo. You scored big on this one... A general roundup to be found @ The Next Level :: View topic - Uncovered: The Rat's Nest of 9/11 of effective gatekeepers -- and its true that his set of people, in aggregate, has the 9/11 conspiracy topic cornered and setup a certain way.
More along these lines: 9/11, 7/7 & the War on Freedom :: View topic - The Planned Demolition of Alex Jones, The COUP had foreknowledge of 9-11 (YES!), the criticism about Sibel Edmonds, Scheuer, Ray McGovern, etc: WagNews: Our Good Friends in the CIA - NOT !, (i.e "The alternative media is ridden with ex-FBI, ex-CIA, ex-NSA, ex-MI5 people who are on "our side". It's all total BS.") WagNews: Alex Jones, Hopsicker & the 9/11 CIA Fakes -Audio.
This one is suddenly salient: WagNews: Ellsberg, Sibel Edmonds & The Secret Team:
WHAT FLAVOR CONSPIRACY YOU WANT?
One big corner of that overall 9/11 picture is formed by four disparate-seeming individuals: a veteran whistleblower, an attractive novice whistleblower, a campaigning journalist and a reputed lingerie model; jigsaw peices called Ellsberg, Edmonds, Hopsicker and Keller. Ellsberg supports Edmonds, confirmed by Hopsicker --backed by eyewitness accounts from Keller. But they're all telling different flavors of the same story.
To specify which story that is, let's take a look at the popular tales of 9/11. The notorious main division is between LIHOP and MIHOP. But it's much more detailed than that. Explanations come in a full range of flavors --starting with the official story:
A. Official story:
CIA/FBI were incompetent; Bush and/or Clinton were complacent.B. Official Lame Conspiracy:
CIA/FBI were incompetent; Bush/Cheney maybe let it happen; Israelis Knew.C. Official LIHOP Conspiracy:
CIA/FBI were compromised; Bush/Cheney did let it happen; Israelis Helped.D. Official LIHOP Wild Conspiracy:
CIA/FBI compromised; Bush/Cheney/Neocons let it happen; Israelis Did It.E. Official LIHOP Tinfoil Conspiracy:
Israelis/Neocons/Bush/Cheney Did It; CIA/FBI looked the other way.F. Official MIHOP 'Serious' Conspiracy:
Israelis/Neocons/CIA/FBI/Bush/Cheney/Military-Industrial-Complex Did It.G. Official Loony Conspiracies:
Rothschilds and/or Rockefellers and/or CFR and/or Bildebergers did it.It's a terrific variety of theories.
Globalists who want to run everything in a World Government did it.
Jews and Jewish bankers -who already run everything- did it.
Satanists, Opus Dei or Reptilians did it.
It plays out something like this:
But every single one, from A to G are OFFICIAL versions, sanctioned and promoted by the 9/11 intelligence coverup operation and their CIA Fakes network. They have a flavor for every market.
- The mainstream media push version A; hint at B; sneer at G.
- The controlled right/intellectual media pushes version B.
- The controlled left/intellectual media pushes version C.
- The 'moderate' Fake internet sites push versions C and D.
- The 'softcore' Fake internet sites push versions D and E.
- The 'independent' Fake internet sites push version F.
- The 'loony' Fake interent sites push variations of version G.
The creation of this multiplicity of explanations is a core element of the coverup. Left to their own devices, people on the Internet might have figured out the truth themselves. But with this circus in action, there is always plenty of distraction and lots of division in opinion.
The intelligence coverup is not trying to stop 9/11 conspiracy theories on the internet. It's creating them. Then playing off supporters of the different theories against each other. That's a classic Cointelpro-style tactic.
***********More from good Ol L Fletcher Prouty on CIA / Ellsberg limited hangout type conspiracy control!
Let's get to the brand-new material from the White House info czar, it's wild!!...... Conspiracy Theories by Cass Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule:
Our main though far from exclusive focus – our running example – involves
conspiracy theories relating to terrorism, especially theories that arise from and post-date
the 9/11 attacks. These theories exist within the United States and, even more virulently,
in foreign countries, especially Muslim countries. The existence of both domestic and
foreign conspiracy theories, we suggest, is no trivial matter, posing real risks to the
government’s antiterrorism policies, whatever the latter may be. Terrorism-related
theories are thus a crucial testing ground for the significance, causes, and policy
implications of widespread conspiracy theorizing. As we shall see, an understanding of
conspiracy theories has broad implications for the spread of information and beliefs;
many erroneous judgments are a product of the same forces that produce conspiracy
theories, and if we are able to see how to counteract such theories, we will have some
clues about how to correct widespread errors more generally.
Part I explores some definitional issues and lays out some of the mechanisms that
produce conspiracy theories and theorists. We begin by discussing different
understandings of the nature of conspiracy theories and different accounts of the kinds of
errors made by those who hold them. Our primary claim is that conspiracy theories
typically stem not from irrationality or mental illness of any kind but from a “crippled
epistemology,” in the form of a sharply limited number of (relevant) informational
sources. Those who hold conspiracy theories do so because of what they read and hear. In
that sense, acceptance of such theories is not irrational from the standpoint of those who
adhere to them. There is a close connection, we suggest, between our claim on this count
and the empirical association between terrorist behavior and an absence of civil rights
and civil liberties.10 When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple
information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy theories.
Part II discusses government responses and legal issues, in light of the discussion
in Part I. We address several dilemmas of governmental response to conspiracy theories,
such as the question whether it is better to rebut such theories, at the risk of legitimating
them, or to ignore them, at the risk of leaving them unrebutted. Conspiracy theories turn
out to be especially hard to undermine or dislodge; they have a self-sealing quality,
rendering them particularly immune to challenge. We suggest several policy responses
that can dampen the supply of conspiracy theorizing, in part by introducing diverse
viewpoints and new factual assumptions into the hard-core groups that produce such
theories. Our principal claim here involves the potential value of cognitive infiltration of
extremist groups, designed to introduce informational diversity into such groups and to
expose indefensible conspiracy theories as such.
Tell me this, Sunstein: how does all that drug money get through the Federal Reserve System? Everyone has been so eager to confront that 'conspiracy theory,' haven't they?
Blah blah blah... let's get to the good stuff: [Below the fold - favorite chunks of much of the crazy essay]
Members of informationally and socially isolated groups tend to display a kind of
paranoid cognition46 and become increasingly distrustful or suspicious of the motives of
others or of the larger society, falling into a “sinister attribution error.”47 This error
occurs when people feel that they are under pervasive scrutiny, and hence they attribute
personalistic motives to outsiders and overestimate the amount of attention they receive.
Benign actions that happen to disadvantage the group are taken as purposeful plots,
intended to harm.48 Although these conditions resemble individual-level pathologies,
they arise from the social and informational structure of the group, especially those
operating in enclosed or closely knit networks, and are not usefully understood as a form
of mental illness. The social etiology of such conditions suggests that the appropriate
remedy is not individual treatment, but the introduction of cognitive, informational, and
social diversity into the isolated networks that supply extremist theories. We take up the
resulting policy problems in the next Part.
II. Governmental Responses
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).
If one believes that conspiracy theories are in some sense inconsequential, the
best answer will be for government to ignore them. If children believe in Santa Claus or
the Easter Bunny, there is no problem for government to solve; and the belief that the
government covered up the landing of space aliens in Roswell does not seem to be
causing discernible harm, with the possible exception of bad television shows. (This does
not imply that government should ignore conspiracy theories only if they are
inconsequential. As we will see, under certain conditions government may do best to
ignore conspiracy theories and theorists even if it justifiably fears that they will have
harmful effects, because government action may make things worse.) In Section A,
however, we give some reasons to think that some conspiracy theories are consequential
In Section B, we address several dilemmas of governmental response to
conspiracy theories and theorists. Is it best to ignore them, creating a risk that the theory
will spread unrebutted, or to address them, with the risk that addressing the theory will
legitimate and even be taken to confirm it? Assuming budget constraints and limited
resources, should government efforts focus on debiasing the conspiracy theorists
themselves, or solely on preventing the spread of conspiracy theories among the larger
population? How can government get behind or around the distinctive feature of
conspiracy theories -- their self-sealing quality, which tends to fold government’s denials
into the theory itself as further evidence of the conspiracy?
An obvious answer is to maintain an open society, in which those who are
tempted to subscribe to conspiracy theories do not distrust all knowledge-creating
institutions, and are exposed to corrections. But we have seen that even in open societies,
conspiracy theories have some traction; and open societies have a strong interest in
debunking such theories when they arise, and threaten to cause harm, in closed societies.
Here we suggest two concrete ideas for government officials attempting to fashion a
response to such theories. First, responding to more rather than fewer conspiracy theories
has a kind of synergy benefit: it reduces the legitimating effect of responding to any one
of them, because it dilutes the contrast with unrebutted theories. Second, we suggest a
distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy
theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their
allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will
undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so
by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups,
thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.49
In Section C, we examine the role of law and judges in fashioning the
government’s response. We will ask whether judges do more good than harm by
invoking statutes such as the Freedom of Information Act to force government to disclose
facts that would rebut conspiracy theories. Our conclusions are generally skeptical: there
is little reason to believe that judges can improve on administrative choices in these
situations. Section D concludes with some brief notes on government efforts to dispel
conspiracy theories held by foreign audiences, especially in Muslim countries.
Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate
conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by
doing so. (We do not offer a particular account of social welfare, taking the term instead
as a placeholder for the right account.) This is a standard assumption in policy analysis,
and is useful for clarifying the policy questions, but we note that real-world governments
can instead be purveyors of conspiracy theories. In Egypt, newspapers effectively
controlled by the governing regime regularly spread conspiracy theories about Jews.50
Some believe that the Bush administration deliberately spread a kind of false and
unwarranted conspiracy theory – that Saddam Hussein conspired with Al Qaeda to
support the 9/11 attacks.51 Suppose for discussion’s sake that this is so; then a future
administration motivated to improve social welfare would need to consider whether this
theory is false and harmful, and if it is what can and should be done about it. But this
would just be another case of a conspiracy theory circulating in the population, which
might or might not be worth responding to, in light of the considerations we adduce
below. Nothing of theoretical interest follows from this case for the questions we address
here, which strictly involve optimal responses to conspiracy theories on the part of a (real
or imagined) well-motivated government..........
B. Dilemmas and Responses
Imagine a government facing a population in which a particular conspiracy theory
is becoming widespread. We will identify two basic dilemmas that recur, and consider
how government should respond. The first dilemma is whether to ignore or rebut the
theory; the second is whether to address the supply side of conspiracy theorizing by
attempting to debias or disable its purveyors, to address the demand side by attempting to
immunize third-party audiences from the theory’s effects, or to do both (if resource
In both cases, the underlying structure of the problem is that conspiracy theorizing
is a multi-party game. Government is faced with suppliers of conspiracy theories, and
might aim at least in part to persuade, debias, or silence those suppliers. However, those
two players are competing for the hearts and minds of third parties, especially the mass
audience of the uncommitted.58 Expanding the cast further, one may see the game as
involving four players: government officials, conspiracy theorists, mass audiences, and
independent experts – such as mainstream scientists or the editors of Popular Mechanics
– whom government attempts to enlist to give credibility to its rebuttal efforts. The
discussion that follows generally assumes the three-party structure, but we will refer to
the four-party structure when relevant.
1. Ignore or rebut?
The first dilemma is that either ignoring or rebutting a conspiracy theory has
distinctive costs. Ignoring the theory allows its proponents to draw ominous inferences
from the government’s silence. If the theory stands unrebutted, one possibility is that it is
too ludicrous to need rebuttal, but another is that the government cannot offer relevant
evidence to the contrary; the suppliers of the conspiracy theories will propose the second
inference. On this view, all misinformation (the initial conspiracy theory) should be met
On the other hand, to rebut the theory may be to legitimate it, moving the theory
from the zone of claims too ludicrous to be discussed to the zone of claims that, whether
or not true, are in some sense worth discussing. This legitimation effect can arise in one
of two ways. First, third-party audiences may infer from the government’s rebuttal
efforts that the government estimates the conspiracy theory to be plausible, and fears that
the third parties will themselves be persuaded. Second, some members of the audience
may infer that many other members of the audience must believe the theory, or
government would not be taking the trouble to rebut it. Consider circumstances of
“pluralistic ignorance,” in which citizens are unsure what other citizens believe.59
Citizens may take the fact of rebuttal itself as supplying information about the beliefs of
other citizens, and may even use this information in forming their own beliefs. The
government’s rebuttal may be a signal that other citizens believe in the conspiracy theory
– and may therefore make the theory more plausible. If the number who follow this
cognitive strategy and thus adopt a belief in the theory exceeds the number who are
persuaded by the rebuttal, the perverse result of the rebuttal may then be to increase the
number of believers...........
2. Which audience?
Another dilemma is whether to target the supply side of the conspiracy theory or
the demand side. Should governmental responses be addressed to the suppliers, with a
view to persuading or silencing them, or rather be addressed to the mass audience, with a
view to inoculating them from pernicious theories? Of course these two strategies are not
mutually exclusive as a logical matter; perhaps the best approach is to straddle the two
audiences with a single response or simply to provide multiple responses. However, if
there are resource constraints, government may face a choice about where to place its
emphases. The question will be what mix of second-party responses (pitched to the
suppliers) and third-party responses (pitched to the mass audience) is best. Moreover,
apart from resource constraints, there are intrinsic tradeoffs across these strategies. The
very arguments that are most convincing to the mass audience may be least convincing to
the conspiracists, and vice-versa.
We will begin with some remarks about responses addressed to the supply side.
The basic problem with pitching governmental responses to the suppliers of conspiracy
theories is that those theories, by their nature, have a self-sealing quality. They are (1)
resistant and in extreme cases invulnerable to contrary evidence,61 and (2) especially
resistant to contrary evidence offered by the government, because the government
rebuttal is folded into the conspiracy theory itself. If conspiracy theorists are responding
to the informational signals given by those whom they trust, then the government’s effort
at rebuttal seems unlikely to be effective, and might serve to fortify rather than to
undermine the original belief. (A possible solution is for government to enlist private
rebuttals; we return to this point shortly.) The most direct response to a dangerous
conspiracy theories is censorship. That response is unavailable in an open society,
because it is inconsistent with principles of freedom of expression. We could imagine
circumstances in which a conspiracy theory became so pervasive, and so dangerous, that
censorship would be thinkable. But in an open society, the need for censorship would be
correspondingly reduced. In any case censorship may well turn out to be self-defeating.
The effort to censor the theory might well be taken as evidence that the theory is true, and
censorship of speech is notoriously difficult.
After 9/11, one complex of conspiracy theories involved American Airlines Flight
77, which hijackers crashed into the Pentagon. Some theorists claimed that no plane had
hit the Pentagon; even after the Department of Defense released video frames showing
Flight 77 approaching the building and a later explosion cloud, theorists pointed out that
the actual moment of impact was absent from the video, in order to keep alive their claim
that the plane had never hit the building. (In reality the moment of impact was not
captured because the video had a low number of frames per second.62) Moreover, even
those conspiracists who were persuaded that the Flight 77 conspiracy theories were
wrong folded that view into a larger conspiracy theory. The problem with the theory that
no plane hit the Pentagon, they said, is that the theory was too transparently false,
disproved by multiple witnesses and much physical evidence. Thus the theory must have
been a straw man initially planted by the government, in order to discredit other
conspiracy theories and theorists by association.63
Government can partially circumvent these problems if it enlists nongovernmental
officials in the effort to rebut the theories. It might ensure that credible independent
experts offer the rebuttal, rather than government officials themselves. There is a
tradeoff between credibility and control, however. The price of credibility is that
government cannot be seen to control the independent experts. Although government can
supply these independent experts with information and perhaps prod them into action
from behind the scenes, too close a connection will prove self-defeating if it is exposed --
as witness the humiliating disclosures showing that apparently independent opinions on
scientific and regulatory questions were in fact paid for by think-tanks with ties to the
Bush administration.64 Even apart from this tradeoff, conspiracy theorists may still fold
independent third-party rebuttals into their theory by making conspiratorial claims of
connection between the third party and the government. When Popular Mechanics
offered its rebuttal of 9/11 conspiracy theories, conspiracists claimed that one of the
magazine’s reporters, Ben Chertoff, was the cousin of Homeland Security Secretary
Michael Chertoff and was spreading disinformation at the latter’s behest.65
Because of these difficulties, many officials dismiss direct responses to the
suppliers of conspiracy theorists as an exercise in futility. Rather, they implicitly frame
their responses to the third-party mass audience, hoping to stem the spread of conspiracy
theories by dampening the demand rather than by reducing the supply. Philip Zelikow,
the executive director of the 9/11 commission, says that “[t]he hardcore conspiracy
theorists are totally committed. They’d have to repudiate much of their life identity in
order not to accept some of that stuff. That’s not our worry. Our worry is when things
become infectious . . . . [t]hen this stuff can be deeply corrosive to public understanding.
You can get where the bacteria can sicken the larger body.”66 Likewise, when the
National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a fact sheet to disprove the theory
that the World Trade Center was brought down by a controlled demolition, the
spokesman stated that “[w]e realize this fact sheet won’t convince those who hold to the
alternative theories that our findings are sound. In fact, the fact sheet was never intended
for them. It is for the masses who have seen or heard the alternative theory claims and
The problem with this line of argument, however, is that it takes the existence of a
hard core as a given. This is premature; we will suggest below that if the hard core arises
for certain identifiable reasons, it can be broken up or at least muted by government
action. Furthermore, there are intrinsic costs to the strategy of giving up on the hard core
and directing government efforts solely towards inoculating the mass audience. For one
thing, the hard core may itself provide the most serious threat. For another, a response
geared to a mass audience (whether or not nominally pitched as a response to the
conspiracy theorists) will lead some to embrace rather than reject the conspiracy theory
the government is trying to rebut. This is the legitimation dilemma again: to begin a
program of inoculation is to signal that the disease is already widespread and threatening.
Under pluralistic ignorance, the perverse result may actually be to spread the conspiracy
3. Cognitive infiltration
Rather than taking the continued existence of the hard core as a constraint, and
addressing itself solely to the third-party mass audience, government might undertake
(legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories, arguments
and rhetoric that are produced by the hard core and reinforce it in turn. One promising
tactic is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. By this we do not mean 1960s-style
infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in
future prosecutions. Rather, we mean that government efforts might succeed in
weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that
constitute these networks and groups.
How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups,
including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of
crippled epistemology. Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior,
their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts.
Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest
that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or
reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. We suggest a role for government
efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. 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.
In one variant, government agents would openly proclaim, or at least make no
effort to conceal, their institutional affiliations. A recent newspaper story recounts that
Arabic-speaking Muslim officials from the State Department have participated in
dialogues at radical Islamist chat rooms and websites in order to ventilate arguments not
usually heard among the groups that cluster around those sites, with some success.68 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. Despite these difficulties, the two forms of
cognitive infiltration offer different risk-reward mixes and are both potentially useful
There is a similar tradeoff along another dimension: whether the infiltration
should occur in the real world, through physical penetration of conspiracist groups by
undercover agents, or instead should occur strictly in cyberspace. The latter is safer, but
potentially less productive. The former will sometimes be indispensable, where the
groups that purvey conspiracy theories (and perhaps themselves formulate conspiracies)
formulate their views through real-space informational networks rather than virtual
networks. Infiltration of any kind poses well-known risks: perhaps agents will be asked
to perform criminal acts to prove their bona fides, or (less plausibly) will themselves
become persuaded by the conspiratorial views they are supposed to be undermining;
perhaps agents will be unmasked and harmed by the infiltrated group. But the risks are
generally greater for real-world infiltration, where the agent is exposed to more serious
All these risk-reward tradeoffs deserve careful consideration. Particular tactics
may or may not be cost-justified under particular circumstances. Our main suggestion is
just that, whatever the tactical details, there would seem to be ample reason for
government efforts to introduce some cognitive diversity into the groups that generate
conspiracy theories. Social cascades are sometimes quite fragile, precisely because they
are based on small slivers of information. Once corrective information is introduced,
large numbers of people can be shifted to different views. If government is able to have
credibility, or to act through credible agents, it might well be successful in dislodging
beliefs that are held only because no one contradicts them. Likewise, polarization tends
to decrease when divergent views are voiced within the group.69 Introducing a measure
of cognitive diversity can break up the epistemological networks and clusters that supply
C. A Role for Law, and Courts?
So far we have detailed some dilemmas facing government officials and have
suggested some policy responses. What if anything is the role of law, and courts, in these
matters? The principal point of contact between the legal system and the issues discussed
here is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which creates a presumption of
transparency for documents held by administrative agencies and executive institutions.
Unless the government can show that the requested information falls within one of a
designated list of exceptions, there is a legal right to disclosure, and the Supreme Court
has created a broad concept of “informational standing”70 to permit interested groups and
citizens to enforce that right.
FOIA becomes relevant when the government holds, and declines to disclose,
information that might rebut a circulating conspiracy theory. An example involves the
disclosure of the Department of Defense video involving Flight 77’s crash into the
Pentagon on 9/11. A pro-transparency group, Judicial Watch, filed a FOIA request to
obtain the video, but the Defense Department declined, saying that the video was to be
used in the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui. Judicial Watch filed suit to force disclosure,
with the avowed objective of using the video to rebut the conspiracy theories surrounding
Flight 77. However, when the Moussaoui trial ended the government released the video
before the lawsuit could be decided.71
The details of the case only suggest the larger question that it poses: should
courts, and law, force the executive to disclose information that a litigant claims would
help to rebut conspiracy theories? If the answer is yes, then control over the timing and
nature of the executive’s responsive strategy will be partially transferred to litigating
groups and judges. If the answer is no, the executive will retain full control............... [More stuff about the mechanics of FOIA coverups - moving on to crushing Iraq......]
So far we have discussed the distinctive difficulties of the foreign setting. On
other dimensions, however, the foreign setting loosens various legal and political
constraints, allowing the U.S. government greater freedom in responding to conspiracy
theories. In 2004, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, ordered troops to shut
down a weekly newspaper in Baghdad that had propounded false conspiracy theories
damaging to the U.S., such as a story that “an American missile, not a terrorist car bomb,
had caused an explosion that killed more than 50 Iraqi police recruits.”84 Whether this
sort of action does more harm than good, in similar environments, is a complicated
question, depending on difficult judgments about the etiology of conspiracy theories, the
consequences of censorship, and the efficacy of U.S. counterspeech. On the one hand,
there are the familiar arguments that censorship attracts attention to the censored speech
or publication and fuels further conspiracy theorizing; perhaps, the inference might run,
the U.S. is moving against a particular rumor because it is true, or is moving against a
particular paper because it is exposing actual U.S. conspiracies. Furthermore, censorship
might just drive the conspiracy theories underground, to be spread and mutated by
personal rumor-mongering that is less susceptible to focused rebuttal.
On the other hand, the peculiar environment in which Bremer acted may weigh in
favor of a policy of censoring publication of conspiracy theories. One editorial argued
that “[t]he occupation authorities have plenty of means, including their own television
station, to get out a more favorable message.”85 However, this ignores the effect
discussed above, that the antecedent skepticism of the Iraqi audience is so strong that any
U.S. statements, even if true, credible and important, will be ignored altogether. With an
audience already thoroughly in the grip of conspiracy theories, open counterspeech may
simply be more grist for the conspiratorial mill. Consider that when Al-Hurra began its
operations, a conspiracy theory quickly circulated, claiming that the short-term contracts
given to Al-Hurra personnel showed that the station was set up only to bolster George W.
Bush’s reelection campaign, and would presumably be shut down after the election.86
Given the extremely low efficacy of U.S. counterspeech in this sort of environment, the
realistic options may be limited to censorship and anonymous or quasi-anonymous
counterspeech in the style of the Lincoln Group. Whatever the merits of these pragmatic
and tactical questions, the availability of censorship gives U.S. officials operating in
foreign countries an extra instrument for coping with conspiracy theories, one that is not
available in the domestic arena due to both legal and political constraints.
Our goal here has been to understand the sources of conspiracy theories and to
examine potential government responses. Most people lack direct or personal information
about the explanations for terrible events, and they are often tempted to attribute such
events to some nefarious actor. The temptation is least likely to be resisted if others are
making the same attributions. Conspiracy cascades arise through the same processes that
fuel many kinds of social errors. What makes such cascades most distinctive, and
relevantly different from other cascades involving beliefs that are both false and harmful,
is their self-insulating quality. The very statements and facts that might dissolve
conspiracy cascades can be taken as further evidence on their behalf. These points make
it especially difficult for outsiders, including governments, to debunk them.
Some conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine
democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If government can
dispel such theories, it should do so. One problem is that its efforts might be
counterproductive, because efforts to rebut conspiracy theories also legitimate them. We
have suggested, however, that government can minimize this effect by rebutting more
rather than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by
cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy-
minded groups and informationally isolated social networks.
OMG WOWZ - I'll leave it there.
On the other hand, I think I may have a rejoinder to his whole worldview in the works. Dang this crappy epistomology :-P