“Conspiracy Theories” by Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule is making the blog controversy rounds.
Background – Cass R. Sunstein is Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration. The paper was written two years ago, before Sunstein became the Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator. It’s unknown if Sunstein still holds the views in this paper, but it’s fair to ask if Sunstein still holds these views.
The two lines in the paper that have set people off: (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. The paper discusses these options, but does not conclude to follow either of these options.
The paper does, however, conclude the way to combat groups formed from conspiracy theories is by the government infiltrating the groups to break them up–In other words, a government conspiracy to fight conspiracy theories.
Half the paper dives into the psychology behind conspiracy theories, or as Ric Romero would say “people hold beliefs that are not based in fact.”
The other half of the paper weighs how governments should deal with conspiracy theories, and some of those suggestions are just like pouring gasoline on conspiracy theory fires.
Excerpts from the paper –
Our ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine such theories, and as a general rule, true accounts should not be undermined.
When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy 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.
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.
Conclusion – Our goal here has been to understand the sources of conspiracy theories and to examine potential government responses.
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.
The underlying argument in the conclusion is akin to declaring war on war, but not calling it a war. To support fighting the cognitive dissonance of conspiracy theories with cognitive infiltration requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance.
My favorite part of the paper – What causes such theories to arise and spread?