By - Shawn Hamilton
I first became aware of Cass Sunstein’s ideas for controlling conspiracy theories after seeing several ads for a web site called America.gov run by the State Department. It’s a complex, well-funded site with more avenues than I’ve cared to examine, but what caught my attention was the section under International Relations: Peace and Security called “Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation” with the astounding caption: “Conspiracy theories exist in the realm of myth, where imaginations run wild, fears trump facts and evidence is ignored.”
I clicked through its pages for a while in amazement. The tone sounded like the writer was talking to a five-year-old, and the content played fast and loose with the truth.
Alarmed, but intrigued, I went to the section called “U.S. Domestic” and read, “Perhaps more conspiracy theories surround Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John Kennedy in 1963, than anyone in American history. The Soviet KGB, Cuba, the mafia, the CIA, and others have been blamed for killing Kennedy, but all evidence indicates that Oswald acted alone.”
I found that curious. It’s common knowledge that the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded in 1979 that there had been a probable conspiracy in the JFK assassination. I remember when it happened. That conclusion was reported for one day then dropped. “Oswald acted alone” was a hyperlink, so I clicked it to read a summary of Oswald based on Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book on the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History. It was the only source cited. The writer of the summary was a guy named Todd Leventhal, who I later learned is Chief of the Counter-Misinformation Team for the U.S. Department of State. The site describes Leventhal as “the Department’s expert on conspiracy theories and misinformation—stories that are untrue, but widely believed,” adding—and I found this unintentionally comic—that he enjoys reading obituaries….
This link has since been suspended.
Overall, the site seems to employ several basic strategies of deception. It mixes items that aren’t true with ones that are, draws “evidence” from single sources (and not the most credible ones), provides evidence that proves nothing but is presented as if it does, and presents partial information that fails to tell the whole story.
Dan Roggenkamp, an English professor in Taiwan, observed, “I’ve noticed that this government site relies a lot on the ‘it’s simply not true’ line of logic. Maybe if they say that enough, people will believe it.” I note that Hitler believed the same thing about the “Big Lie” (Große Lüge).
Shortly after my initial encounter with America.gov, I went to “politicalassassinations.com,” a web site run by John Judge, to check a reference. Judge is a respected researcher, activist and public speaker whose primary focus over many years has been the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “You can call me a conspiracy theorist,” I once heard Judge say, “if you call everyone else a coincidence theorist.”
Judge prefers to call himself “an alternative historian.”
I wrote to him asking if he knew the source of America.gov, and he responded saying the likely source is White House appointee, Cass Sunstein, who wrote about countering conspiracy theories by infiltrating and confusing what he called “extremist groups” that believe in them. Judge quotes Sunstein as having said, “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 believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.”
That seems to describe the America.gov site pretty well.
“Sunstein said government agents ‘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,’” Judge continued. “Sunstein defined a conspiracy theory as ‘an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.’” Judge said some examples Sunstein offers include “The theory of global warming is a deliberate fraud” and “The view that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.”
I should also note that I tried to post a comment to a page about Oswald on the America.gov site, along with only four already there, pointing out the fact that the HSCA had concluded there had been a probable conspiracy in the Kennedy Assassination. According to the site, comments are posted if they are on-topic and respectful. Mine was received but subject to moderation.
Then it disappeared.
I posted another with the same result. I mentioned this to Judge, who explained, “Several JFK researchers I alerted to the site could not post there. That alone should be revealed.”
In 2010 theologian David Ray Griffin wrote a book called Cognitive Infiltration that analyzes Sunstein’s arguments in “Conspiracy Theories,” the formal essay presenting his strange views, and points out their contradictions. Sunstein’s real target, Griffin suggests, is the 9/11 Truth movement. I was late in reading and reviewing his book (my review is #40 of 41 on Amazon.com, called “A Noble Lie,”), but with the help of a political philosopher, I think I got a good sense of what Sunstein is up to. You can also find the review here.
Recently I asked Griffin if he had any comments to make about the general reaction to Cognitive Infiltration. He responded saying he has been astounded that virtually all the reviews on Amazon.com are 5-star reviews —the highest rating. Of the 41 reviews, all had five stars except for one, which gave the book four stars but still praised it. “Moreover, many of the reviews are extremely thoughtful, showing that the 9/11 Truth Movement has attracted some of the best minds in the English-speaking world,” Griffin said, noting that the most important question raised by Sunstein’s essay is the one I discuss in the final paragraph of Review #40. If Sunstein believes, as he purports, that the 9/11 Truth Movement’s central claims are ‘demonstrably false,’ why would he have recommended that this movement should be infiltrated by government agents?
“If Sunstein really considered these claims to be demonstrably false, would he not simply have explained exactly why these claims are false?” Griffin wonders. “If Sunstein believes the leaders of the 9/11 Truth Movement to be laughably ignorant, as his description of them as ‘epistemological cripples’ suggests, would he not expect their movement - like the campaigns of some of the Republican Party’s presidential hopefuls-to self-destruct?”
Griffin also points out that the correctness of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s claims is illustrated by the fact that 9/11 professional organizations continue to grow. “When I published Cognitive Infiltration, there were slightly more than 1,200 professional members of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. Today (November 17, 2011), the number has increased to 1,637,” he said.
I should mention that I wrote a letter to Sunstein in September of 2010 requesting an interview from him or someone in his office. I know his office received it because I registered the letter and someone signed for it. Over a year later, I have received no response, not even the usual polite formality of a cleverly-worded refusal.
If it’s not clear by now, Orwell’s future nightmare has become our present reality. Sunstein’s intellectual antics along with propaganda sources like America.gov serve the intentions of a government agency that, like the Ministry of Truth in the novel 1984, disseminates lies in the guise of protecting truth.
It’s not easy these days resisting the powerful tide of public opinion, especially when those opinions are shaped by deceptive agencies whose agenda is control. At least those who advocate incorrect conspiracy theories believe they are correct even if they’re not. Paid “counter-disinformation” experts know perfectly well when they’re lying.
“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad” the narrator says in 1984. This is our challenge. We don’t have to accept this kind of manipulation. In fact, it’s our obligation as Americans and global citizens to resist it.