The information free-for-all of the Internet in general and the conspiracy theories proliferating on it in particular continue to make our rulers nervous. Back in February 2006 (FT206:19), I noted that the US State Department had begun briefings against conspiracy theories and theorists. And they’re still at it. A State Department official, Todd Leventhal, is doing on-line rubbishing of conspiracy theories.  Leventhal has been trying to counter what used to be called “sick think” since the days of the Cold War.  But times have changed: Leventhal’s claim that the pools of molten metal found in the rubble of the Twin Towers were aluminium from the planes is immediately shown to be nonsense by a Google search.  Therein lies the problem for those who wish to maintain the official version of reality.
A more interesting and controversial potential official response to conspiracy theories has come from Professor Cass Sunstein (above), a former colleague of President Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School. In a paper published in 2008,  Sunstein proposed “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 (sic) of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity (sic).”
Sunstein suggested that 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”.
Covert operations against thinking? Shades of the FBI COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) operations against the American left in the Sixties and Seventies – shades, too, of the Soviet use of psychiatry to stifle dissent. Of course, such operations would fail: the Net is too big to be manipulated this way, and the state’s agents would be identified and exposed PDQ. But will they try? And what should we read into the fact that Sunstein was appointed by President Obama to head the Federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs?
1 See for example, this interview on America's London embassy's site.
2 Leventhal’s official CV can be found by doing a Google images search for his name. Some of the activities he doesn’t give on his resumé are discussed on Wayne Madsen Report.
3 See, for example, 'Why did iron boil in the rubble of the World Trade Center?', 6 May 2006.
4 Adrian Vermeule & Cass Sunstein: “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”, see Wiley InterScience for abstract.