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In Defense of Government Disinformation Agents

by Brian Dunning

June 27, 2011

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Donate One of the old jokes on the Skeptoid podcast is that listeners of all stripes accuse me of being a paid disinformation agent by whatever body it is they oppose. They're quite serious, too. When I did a comparative analysis of sugar to corn syrup, I was accused of being on the payroll of Big Corn. When I concluded that ethanol fueled cars suck, I was on the payroll of Big Oil. And, of course, whenever I address any of the myriad "the government is out to get us" conspiracy theories, I'm accused of being a paid disinformation agent, sent out into the world to spread lies about how the government is your best friend. Because, you know, the government does that. Half the science podcasts out there are funded by the CIA. (That's a joke.)

But in 2008, a pair of legal professors from the Harvard Law School published a paper in which they suggested that the government do precisely that. Their concern was about the spreading of conspiracy theories, both by mass media and particularly by individuals on Internet forums, and about the possible damaging effects this could have. As legal professors, they wondered if there was some kind of legal recourse, or a lawful way that this could be fought.

Their primary remedy is the employ of what they called a "counter-misinformation establishment" whereby the government would employ operatives to post arguments against the conspiracy theories on Internet forums, social networks, and so forth. They suggested that any such effort would need to be widespread and comprehensive, leaving no conspiracy theory unchallenged, else they might draw special attention to only the few that they did rebut. They called this cognitive infiltration. It's not even necessary to rebut the conspiracy theories with facts; but even just dilute them with enough "informational diversity" that no coherent conspiracy theory remained.

They also discussed taxing or banning conspiracy mongering, although both have obvious freedom of speech implications. From my perspective, even the cognitive infiltration would be a form of repression of free speech -- the intentional drowning out of your opponent's speech with noise.

This reviewer suggested even a stronger tactic: Charging the producers of Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory with a violation of 18 U.S.C. 2383, inciting rebellion against the US Government.

My opinion, on which I could well be wrong, is that any and all such efforts are a fool's errand. As I will discuss in tomorrow's Skeptoid episode, conspiratorial thinking is here to stay. Any efforts to subvert it in any way will be perceived as part of the conspiracy and coverup. And that's a job best left to us professional disinformation agents.

by Brian Dunning

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