Cognitive infiltration?

Should the Federal government be infiltrating and disrupting groups they deem to hold conspiracy theories or who may hold what they deem as non-mainstream views? Not that they pose any physical threat mind you. It seems like implementing such a policy would essentially validate any conspiracy theorists paranoia.

In a 2008 academic paper, President Barack Obama's appointee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs advocated "cognitive infiltration" of groups that advocate "conspiracy theories" like the ones surrounding 9/11.

Sunstein argued that "government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories." He suggested that "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."

Is this our future under Obama and one-party rule? Government infiltrators meant to discredit and shape public opinion? I'm absolutely positive from the comments already made public by democrats that Tea Party protestors would be prime targets as well.

He says that the reason this must be done is that these 'conspiracy theorists' are uninformed. So the government must send in infiltrators to undermine their arguments and create confusion, distrust, and fear. Hmm.

That alone is enough, but this Obama official also suggests some insane speech chilling policies.

Sunstein's book is a blueprint for online censorship as he wants to hold blogs and web hosting services accountable for the remarks of commenters on websites while altering libel laws to make it easier to sue for spreading "rumors."

Smith notes that bloggers and others would be forced to remove such criticism unless they could be "proven". The litigation expense would be daunting; the time necessary to defend a posting (or an article) would work to the benefit of the public figure being criticized since the delay would probably allow the figure to win an election before the truth "won out". The mere threat of retaliatory actions would be enough to dissuade many commentators from daring to issue a word of criticism or skepticism.

These kinds of regulations coupled with reimplementation of the Fairness Doctrine would effectively cripple the free speech of conservatives. Which is the reason that Democrats are proposing these ideas in the first place.

I think that this is exactly what was meant when Michelle Obama said that Barack would, "never allow us to go back to our lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed."

Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.
~Michelle Obama, Speech at UCLA

Posted by Eric Simonson at January 15, 2010 8:51 PM
Comment #293854

LOL, Eric.

Yes, Cognition is a dangerous thing. So you agree that Conservative speech is full of rumor and conspiracy nutjobs? Glad you are finally waking up to that fact.

Posted by: gergle at January 15, 2010 11:06 PM
Comment #293858

So, the basis of your latest bout of paranoia is a third hand reference to a book by an Obama nominee, made by a movie blogger for the New York Post?

I kind of think his approach is too twentieth century. But you sort of prove his point about how quickly rumors and distortions like yours spread, not to mention the funnelling of opinion down narrow outlets.

I think the only defense is to step off the gas, and realize that human logic and knowledge are always fallible.

People have always had the choice to believe stupid, conspiratorial things. I don’t think infiltrating those groups will help.

But what the government can do is inform people, pass information along to the people.

Fact-free debates have a way of quickly becoming works of fiction. If we’re going to debate things we ought to be able to agree on some basic facts.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at January 16, 2010 1:00 AM
Comment #293864

How about we deal with the actual fraud going on in banking rather than worry about pie-in-the-sky fruit cake ideas?

Posted by: gergle at January 16, 2010 11:03 AM
Comment #293899


You can read the actual paper where the Obama Official recommends infiltrating citizen groups here: Conspiracy Theories, Cass R. Sunstein, Adrian Vermeule

Harvard University!

Posted by: eric at January 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Comment #293901

Also, the Obama Official disagrees with you, apparently, in that open and free debate is not their recommended solution to informing conspiratorial groups of their error.

These are several facts which I am presenting to you but which you choose to ignore. That’s ok.

BTW, I do agree with the Obama Official that their example about 9/11 conspiracy theories and theorists is correct. I agree with that premise. Conspiracy theories(-ists) have a perverse selective logic that precludes correction.

Posted by: eric at January 16, 2010 9:34 PM
Comment #293923

HELP! The paranoids are after me!

A bit like Bushco’s FBI planting groups of little old Quacker ladies in the Iraq Wat run up or Nixon’s wide spread use of agents and agent provocateurs on anti-Vietnam War groups. Pretty unsettling.

Posted by: bills at January 17, 2010 7:32 AM
Comment #293938

The paper’s behind a paywall. Sorry.

I don’t think his idea’s all that good, but neither is the Republican idea of just spreading vicious rumors and falsehoods as a means to bring people back to the GOP.

How long can you appeal to people with provocative language, and not encourage the worse to do some actual harm at some point?

That’s what gets people like Cass Sunstein as scared as they are and not without reason. It’s as simple as the threat of internal bloodshed, violence and unrest. Only this time, it’s not the leftists or hippies that represent the subversive groups that scare normal folks. The Republican have traded places With the Democrats of 1968.

The Republicans need to stop scaring people. They need to start reassuring people that if you elect them, you’ve not going to have some major financial or foreign policy disaster.

If you folks go right back, and just continue to fearmonger, and all hell doesn’t break lose, they the Republicans are going to start looking like they’re covering up for a lack of substance. Which won’t be far off the mark.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at January 17, 2010 3:04 PM
Comment #294003

Eric, I really don’t get this post.

The government has a long history of infiltrating groups that it deems subversive or un-american. I am sure that there are any number of groups that the government is infiltrating presently. The KKK comes to mind.

Both the government and the two political parties have a long history of lying or disinforming to affect public opinion.

I can just imagine a government agent or informant infiltrating the Klan and arguing that they are misinformed and here is the true information.

The thing about conspiracy theory groups is that they know the truth and anyone who would argue that the group is misinformed would not be welcome in the group.

Posted by: jlw at January 18, 2010 2:13 PM
Comment #294463


Just Michelle’s statements, in as much as they issue from the mouth of a highly paid corporate lawyer who is literally in bed with the president of the United States are sufficiently chilling. The president “will not let” me go back to life as usual?

Not acceptable language from the wife of one of my employees.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at January 23, 2010 5:12 PM
Comment #314422

The views of Sunstein and his co-author, Adrian Vermeule, are misrepresented here. They do not call for sowing “confusion, distrust, and fear,” as you put it. Rather, they call for raising questions in the minds of people who’ve only been exposed to one interpretation of the facts, including by presenting them with other facts. It’s basically a call for promoting critical thinking.

To be sure, there are big legal and constitutional concerns when government assumes such a role covertly, especially in the light of past secret programs like COINTELPRO. But Sunstein and Vermeule state explicitly that they are not advocating such a program of espionage and disruption, claims to the contrary by their critics notwithstanding.

Another merit to the paper that has been widely overlooked is that, while discussing “cognitive infiltration” only in the context of government policy, they are nonetheless introducing a concept that concerned individuals can also take up on their own, and which may not have occurred to them previously. For instance, a few months ago I “cognitively infiltrated” a book discussion group run by a cult, and used the book they were discussing to present information on the mechanisms of mind control. This was prior to my discovering Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper; but I probably wouldn’t have thought of something like this if I hadn’t inadvertently joined the cult’s Meetup group online — and if I hadn’t happened to be a cult survivor and anti-cult activist. The Sunstein-Vermeule paper may stimulate many to think in a more systematic and proactive way about how they can work creatively to promote rationality.

Posted by: Eric Hamell at December 2, 2010 11:52 PM
Comment #319048

C’mon, Eric Hamell, I’m quite sure the concept of cognitive infiltration has occurred to most thinking adults independent of Cass Sunstein’s paper. I haven’t finished it yet, but I would say that is the least of its intent.

Posted by: jane flaherty at February 22, 2011 3:11 PM
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