A high-ranking official in the Obama administration has come under fire in the past few weeks for suggesting that it would be a good idea to deploy federal agents to "cognitively infiltrate" political groups that believe in conspiracy theories. "Cognitive infiltration" may just be a fancy way to describe what chat room trolls do every day, but it's downright Orwellian in its implications, summoning visions of disinformation campaigns, agents provocateurs, and J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO. The official is Cass Sunstein, the long-time University of Chicago law professor (he has since moved on to Harvard), who is currently serving as director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
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.
Glenn Greenwald ripped into Sunstein's "truly pernicious" article in Salon (click here for his post, several PS's, and the 600-plus comments it received). "Note how similar Sunstein's proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates," he wrote. "There is a very strong case to make that what Sunstein is advocating is itself illegal under long-standing statutes prohibiting government 'propaganda' within the U.S., aimed at American citizens." The far right World Net Daily was no less alarmist: "Top Obama czar: Infiltrate all 'conspiracy theorists,'" its headline read. "Presidential adviser wrote about crackdown on expressing opinions."
Though their tone may be shrill, they both make a valid point. The US government has a sufficiently expansive bully pulpit at its disposal that it needn't and shouldn't resort to secret agents and bought-and-paid-for claques and shills and ringers to promote its ideas. Unless and until it can prove that they are planting bombs or providing material assistance to people who are, it has to live with the likes of Glenn Beck (who once called Sunstein "the most dangerous man in America"), Alex Jones, the White Aryan Resistance, and David Ray Griffin.
That said, "Conspiracy Theory" is a lot less jack-bootish than they make it sound. It's not a White Paper or a policy brief; its tone is subjunctive and its approach is heuristic -- it floats one scenario after another, totting up their negatives and positives. It does make certain assumptions that are likely to rub against the grain of those who regard the state as a necessary evil. It posits a government that is basically benign and it takes it as a given that the truth is knowable -- that some theories are objectively "wrong." It presumes that it's possible to distinguish between relatively innocuous conspiracy theories that can be safely ignored (Santa Claus or Roswell Space aliens) and more inimical ones that aren't (that the US government deliberately murdered 3000 innocents on 9/11/2001 or used "tectonic weaponry" to further its imperialistic aims in Haiti).
But if "Conspiracy Theory" has been unfairly caricatured, both its analysis and its prescriptions leave much to be desired. Like the ADL's recent "Rage Grows in America" report (click here for a post I wrote about it on my own blog), it has had the unfortunate effect of feeding the conspiracy community's grandiosity. And Sunstein and Vermuele are much more sanguine than I am about the power of facts to alter made-up minds. "Social cascades," they write, "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."
It seems to me that they underestimate the sheer emotionality of conspiracy theory, the intensity and stickiness of its appeal. Conspiracists -- and by conspiracists, I don't mean "anyone who disagrees with the government," I am talking about people who believe in vast plots with countless actors, that unfold over generations and leave no forensic traces (the grand plans of the Learned Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, the New World Order, David Icke's lizard people), or in smaller but equally unfalsifiable conspiracy theories about Obama's true place of birth and the influence that former Weathermen and angry African American ministers have on his administration's policies--are angry and irrational; often they are nursing a deep sense of betrayal. There is a profoundly religious dimension to their thinking, which divides the world between the beleaguered elect they belong to and an altogether evil Other. This isn't to disparage religion, but simply to acknowledge that conspiracy theories don't appeal to our critical faculties, but rather to the parts of our brains that remind us not to walk under ladders.
When I consider its costs and benefits, I foresee scant likelihood that "cognitive infiltration" will win over any hearts and minds for Obama's or anyone else's administration -- and an overwhelming probability (just Google "Sunstein" and "Conspiracy Theory" if you don't believe me!) that it will undermine not just its ideals but its own best interests.
Arthur Goldwag is the author of Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009).