Rag Blog Scoop about ‘Cognitive Infiltration’ Stirs up Internet Storm

Marc Estrin exhibits the tag line to his exclusive Rag Blog article about Obama advisor Cass Sunstein that has received much attention in the blogosphere.

Estrin’s exclusive about Obama confidant
Triggers alarm about controversial scheme

By Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / January 16, 2010

The Rag Blog broke a story on January 11 entitled “Got Fascism?: Obama Advisor Promotes ‘Cognitive Infiltration’” that has stirred up an internet storm.

The article, written for The Rag Blog by novelist Marc Estrin, reveals a previously unreported and highly controversial strategy for fighting dissension and “extremism” — especially targeted at those adhering to “conspiracy” theories — originated by Obama appointee and long-time Obama friend and colleague Cass Sunstein in a 2008 scholarly journal.

The material published in The Rag Blog was in turn covered by Daniel Tencer at The Raw Story on January 13. It was followed up by Glenn Greenwald in an extensive article published by Salon.com entitled “Obama confidant’s spine-chilling proposal,” that has been updated several times since and even received a response from Paul Krugman. Greenwald’s Salon.com article was also distributed by CommonDreams.

Both Tencer and Greenwald credited The Rag Blog and Marc Estrin with breaking the story. Marc Estrin’s original article has been reposted extensively on domestic and international websites, and The Rag Blog has received thousands of referral hits from the Raw Story, Salon.com, and CommonDreams postings and from the republishing of our original story around the internet.

Visits to The Rag Blog have come from links placed on a wide variety of sites and from across the political spectrum, but the story has especially caught on with conspiracy buffs and among some on the ultra-right.

(In December The Rag Blog published an article about a Supreme Court decision that let stand a lower court ruling declaring torture, in the words of the author, “an ordinary, expected consequence of military detention” — a ruling that in effect denied even suspected enemy combatants the protection that comes with being classified a “legal entity.” The Rag Blog posting of that article (a story that did not originate with us) also drew extensive attention including a front page link on The Raw Story — much of it again from the conspiracy fringe — and resulted in thousands of visits to The Rag Blog.)

In his original Rag Blog feature Estrin wrote:

In a recent scholarly article, [Cass Sunstein] and coauthor Adrian Vermeule take up the question of “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” (J. Political Philosophy, 7 [2009], pp. 202-227). This is a man with the president’s ear. This is a man who would process information and regulate things. What does he here propose?

[W]e 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 believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity. (Page 219.)

Estrin reflected:

We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI. There the agents are called “provocateurs” — even if only “cognitive.” One learns to smell or deal with them in a group, or recognize trolling online. But even suspicion or partial exposure can “sow uncertainty and distrust within conspiratorial groups [now conflated with conspiracy theory discussion groups] and among their members,” and “raise the costs of organization and communication” — which Sunstein applauds as “desirable.” “[N]ew recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides.” (p.225).

Glenn Greenwald wrote for Salon.com:

Cass Sunstein has long been one of Barack Obama’s closest confidants. Often mentioned as a likely Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, Sunstein is currently Obama’s head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where, among other things, he is responsible for “overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.”

In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-“independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the Government. This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. The paper’s abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.

Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government).

This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Sunstein’s 2008 paper was flagged by this blogger [The Rag Blog‘s Marc Estrin], and then amplified in an excellent report by Raw Story‘s Daniel Tencer…

And from Daniel Tencer at The Raw Story:

Sunstein’s article, published in the Journal of Political Philosphy in 2008 and recently uncovered by blogger Marc Estrin, states that “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.”

By “crippled epistemology” Sunstein means that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust.

Therefore, Sunstein argued in the article, it would not work to simply refute the conspiracy theories in public — the very sources that conspiracy theorists believe would have to be infiltrated.

Sunstein, whose article focuses largely on the 9/11 conspiracy theories, suggests that the government “enlist 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.”

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.”

“We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI,” Estrin writes at the Rag Blog, expressing surprise that “a high-level presidential advisor” would support such a strategy.

Estrin notes that Sunstein advocates in his article for the infiltration of “extremist” groups so that it undermines the groups’ confidence to the extent that “new recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides.”

Sunstein has been the target of numerous “conspiracy theories” himself, mostly from the right wing political echo chamber, with conservative talking heads claiming he favors enacting “a second Bill of Rights” that would do away with the Second Amendment. Sunstein’s recent book, On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, was criticized by some on the right as “a blueprint for online censorship.”

Sunstein “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,'” wrote Ed Lasky at American Thinker.

[Versions of The Rag Blog‘s story about Cass Sunstein are also up on Daily Kos, OpEd News, and Information Clearing House, along with numerous other blogs and news aggregators.]

[Thorne Dreyer is editor of The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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5 Responses to Rag Blog Scoop about ‘Cognitive Infiltration’ Stirs up Internet Storm

  1. My main quarrel with Sunstein is paying agents to do this surreptitiously.

    Otherwise, I occasionally sow ‘cognitive dissonance’ in rightwing blogs myself.

    The method I use is to catch them in a bald-faced lie, and then go to their core sites and refute it with my personal experience or other references.

    I then explain what they are using the lie for, to play people as ‘suckers.’ Even people on the right don’t like to be seen as suckers. But to be effective, and it only works occasionally, you have to be very careful to be accurate, honest and open about who you are.

    There is considerable risk that they will distort or falsify what you say, threaten you in various ways, or simply lock down their sites from open posting. So be careful and selective.

  2. Pollyanna says:

    Open debate is the hallmark of a free society. What is most “pernicious” about Sunstein’s paper is that it casts doubt on those who enter into debate – are they being paid?? are they secret agents for the government, or for the anti-government?

    Pollyanna wishes to go on record right now that nobody is paying her a damn thing for her opinion, as expressed in the Rag Blog or on other sites!!!!

    Now as always, the best “cognitive dissonance” is created in person, using your own name, addressing tough issues honestly and respectfully with people you know.

  3. Jay D. Jurie says:

    Dear Thorne,

    You’re certainly correct to call out someone like Cass Sunstein, or anyone, advocating governmental infiltration, “cognitive” or otherwise. However, the abstract written by him and co-author Adrian Vermeule makes a certain amount of sense up to the point about infiltrating.

    You wrote:

    “Visits to The Rag Blog have come from links placed on a wide variety of sites and from across the political spectrum, but the story has especially caught on with conspiracy buffs and among some on the ultra-right.”

    I’d argue that conspiracy theory creates major problems for those of us on the left. Most significantly, it impedes efforts to generate and gain traction for fact-driven explanations of social reality. It’s a lot easier to come up with and circulate simplistic notions of “cabals” manipulating events than it is to cogently explain the workings of larger social forces, like the military-industrial complex. When C. Wright Mills was talking about “elites” he meant certain social strata, not a few puppet masters in some smoke-filled back room; even G. William Domhoff doesn’t suggest the “Bohemian Grove” is some sort of Pandora’s box from which all understanding of exploitation and dominance springs.

    Much contemporary conspiracy theory, including the 9/11 “Truthers,” tends to pull to the right. One Truther group in Florida has on their web page a belief that we are governed by a “new world order.” This is a belief system shared by elements on the far right, such as the David Duke-affiliated American Free Press. An individual with close ties to that Truther group has achieved some prominence in the Florida anti-war movement. However, a fellow Truther and personal friend of his is on record as having made pro-Holocaust denial statements.

    According to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center article (Intelligence Report, Winter 2009) about Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, in her opposition to Israeli policy, a great deal of which of course deserves opposition, she has publicly associated herself with known Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. While the SPLC has an agenda, I doubt it is a “front” for Sunstein and Vermeule or others of their ilk.

    While we must oppose efforts at governmental infiltration, and I say “kudos” to your scoop on that, we must also be very careful about those with whom we make common cause, taking particular care not to put ourselves in bed with the ultra- right.

  4. Marty says:

    Congratulations to the Blog and Marc Estrin for a great get! It is a distinct pleasure to read clever and well written articles about things worth thinking about and that was one. Odd that Sunstein and Vermeulen don’t consider transparency and open access to objective and measurable evidence. They address one set of epistemological failures by introducing new canned messages … “nothing to see here … move along”. Cute.

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