In Defense of Government Disinformation Agents

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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.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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11 Responses to In Defense of Government Disinformation Agents

  1. skyhawk says:

    I’d rather not have, yet another government bureaucracy, taking more money out of the economy.
    Besides, they already have their own department that uses disinformation- It’s called ‘Congress’. You know, they use terms like ‘Immigration Reform’, ‘Health Care Reform’, ‘The Patriot Act’, etc., when they name bills, which are diametrically opposed to the real purpose of the programs.

  2. Guy McCardle says:

    Very cool. 🙂

  3. dtodd says:

    This would just add fuel to the fire.. I think the skeptic movement is our only hope.

  4. hazza says:

    I think it would be better and easier for those agents to spread their own conspiracy theories including some true ones. That way most is not all conspiracy theories are viewed as just the crazy rantings of certifiable nutbags.

    It would require less agents and less effort just a little more imagination…. wait there are enough nutbags doing their job for them, that means they don’t have to do anything, they can just sit back and watch the show.

  5. hazza says:

    BTW Love your ID number, 9/11 (twin towers), 666 (number of the beast) 13 (considered unlucky)

  6. King says:

    I too have been accused of being a “shill” for “them” on more than one occasion, just for, you know, mentioning facts, bringing up logic, that sort of stuff.

    One one hand, it’s kind of funny, because I’m just a guy behind an internet connection just like anybody else. On the other, it’s sad, because the people who are so wrapped up in this world view genuinely do fret about non-existent conspiracies and imaginary bad guys on a daily basis.

    • Nico says:

      All the conspiraloons smoke too much dope, they’re all paranoid and see Freemasons, Satanists, Paedophiles, etc..everywhere they look.

  7. Henk v says:

    Science is viewed as conspiratorial at present. What more can one say?

    How often have you heard..”I saw a documentary…..”?

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  9. underscorejh says:

    I know I’m very late to this discussion, but after reading the Sustein/Vermeule paper, (and being a long-time student of propaganda), it struck me that the authors were advocating lying to and confusing people with disinformation, not simply trying to set facts straight.

    The authors spend about 10 of 30 pages justifying why they shouldn’t be concerned with setting the record straight with facts nor addressing the concerns/questions of those who question the official theory. Their justification is that CT’s have a “self-sealing” quality to them, i.e., any explanation given will be folded up into the conspiracy. But in declaring that, they are subscribing to a “self-sealing” theory as well: in that, there’s no need to tell the truth because there’s no convincing the CTers.

    This is seriously problematic for a number of reasons, but ultimately, their arguments insulate the government from any actual scrutiny (because they reason, it wouldn’t help). But in the same breath, their suggested strategies revolve almost exclusively around denying the public any more actual information. This is also true with their suggested strategies on how the Judiciary should handle FOIA requests: deny all possible requests because they are just going to feed the CT’s.

    From an “information clearinghouse” perspective, this makes perfect sense: contain, contain, contain. I read this paper. All of it. Most people didn’t and won’t–yet they will present their strong opinions one way or the other about it. The fact remains that the skeleton of this paper says basically:

    “We need to inject a non-stop flow of disinformation into online (and when possible, real-life) groups of CTers with the purpose of derailing the conversation and swaying those still on the fence to reject CTs. And the facts be damned.”

    If the government had nothing to hide, they would release redacted meeting minutes, classified parts of the 9-11 Commission report and a complete video of the Pentagon attack. They won’t. But if they had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t hesitate. Because, by the same logic Sunstein and Vermeule use, (that CTs have a self-sealing quality), then releasing information would not change the hardcore, but could indeed sway the undecided masses. Again, they won’t. But it’s worth noting that the logic used in the paper to justify infiltrating and manipulating these groups could just as well justify releasing classified info. If it was exculpatory. If.

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