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Obama Appointee Sunstein Favors Infiltrating Online Groups 689

Posted by timothy
from the freedom-of-somethingeruther dept.
megamerican writes "President Barack Obama's appointee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs advocated in a recent paper the 'cognitive infiltration' of groups that advocate 'conspiracy theories' like the ones surrounding 9/11 via 'chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine' those groups. Sunstein admits that 'some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true' Sunstein has also recently advocated banning websites which post 'right-wing rumors' and bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. You can find a PDF of his paper here. For decades (1956-1971), the FBI under COINTELPRO focused on disrupting, marginalizing and neutralizing political dissidents, most notably the Black Panthers. More recently CENTCOM announced it would be engaging bloggers 'who are posting inaccurate or untrue information, as well as bloggers who are posting incomplete information.' In January 2009 the USAF released a flow-chart for 'counter-bloggers' to 'counter the people out there in the blogosphere who have negative opinions about the US government and the Air Force.'"
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Obama Appointee Sunstein Favors Infiltrating Online Groups

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:30PM (#30771956)

    Why fear Middle Eastern terrorists, when there are home-grown Americans so eager to utterly destroy freedom of expression...

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:43PM (#30772130)

      If you are willing to give up your liberty for security, you will get neither liberty or security.

      No matter how secure a nation makes itself, it is still vulnerable to attack by citizens or foreign nationals. The Idea of liberty is that citizens actively participate in the security of their nation by allowing citizens the freedom to keep and bear arms. At the start The President of the United States walked around without security and among dissenters themselves wearing guns. The idea was that as an elected leader he would be protected by his fellow Americans.

      Now the roles have reversed and we are kept swine for the government to protect. It is almost more of a crime to protect yourself from a criminal than it is for them to visit hostilities upon you.

    • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:02PM (#30772362) Journal
      I don't know, they're blogs and chat groups. Open to all, generally. I see it as a legitimate use. It's no more subversive than any other astroturfer would be, and such postings are pretty easy to recognise. Now, if they actually blocked content or filtered it in any way (you listening, Conroy?) then that would be truly evil.
      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:22PM (#30772634) Homepage

        Yeah well I fucking hate "astroturfers" and marketeers disguising themselves as customers in forums, and having the government do it is ten times worse.

        Sure it's not nearly as evil as actually shutting down or censoring the content on forums, but that doesn't mean I like it.

        I mean, as an academic paper about conspiracy theories and how they could be defused, it doesn't sound that terrible*. As a government policy? It's shitty, and I don't like it. If the government wants to make more information/propaganda available officially, that's fine with me. Hiding the source of information presented to the people is not how our government should work. Fuck that.

        * The observation from the paper that a conspiracy theorist would not believe someone who is coming from an organization involved in the conspiracy is obviously true. And it's also true I think that conspiracy theories can come from having insufficient information (rather than simple craziness). I thought there was some sense behind some of the 9/11 conspiracies... until I talked to a civil engineer who explained to me what would happen when the steel in a skyscraper was merely heated enough to weaken.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        He proposed not just blocking content, but actually banning certain content. In particular, he proposed banning "conspiracy theories". He outright admits that some of the "conspiracy theories" that he would ban could be true. He gives examples of several things that would meet his definition of "conspiracy theories" that turned out to be true (Watergate for one). This is not someone reading his definition and saying it would apply, he says himself that, by his definition, discussion of these would have been
        • by kindbud (90044) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:34PM (#30773476) Homepage

          He proposed not just blocking content, but actually banning certain content.

          No, he didn't.

          In particular, he proposed banning "conspiracy theories".

          No, he didn't. What has happened here, is that you've been Punk'd by WorldNetDaily. Yep. You might wish it was Ashton Kutcher instead. I am not sure which should be more embarrassing.

    • GWB (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Archangel Michael (180766) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:13PM (#30772516) Journal

      Remember when the left-wingers merely suspected GWB of thinking about possibly doing something similar and how apeshit crazy they went over that slim possibility?

      Where are those people now?

      Now that someone is actually proposing these CHILLING suggestions, because they are against "right wing nutjobs" it is okay?

      Hypocrites. It wasn't right then, it isn't right now. It doesn't matter what you "agree" with; that which needs protection is that which you DON'T agree with.

      Obama Administrator is no friend of Liberty, and he is making GWB look angelic at this point. Don't get me wrong, the Republicans aren't any better, and I'm not defending them either.

      • Re:GWB (Score:5, Insightful)

        by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@nOSpaM.gmail.com> on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:17PM (#30772564) Homepage
        Remember when the left-wingers merely suspected GWB of thinking about possibly doing something similar and how apeshit crazy they went over that slim possibility? Where are those people now?

        Right where they usually are? Obama has been attacked plenty of times by the left, throughout his entire presidency. How on earth can you honestly pretend otherwise.
      • Re:GWB (Score:4, Insightful)

        by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:23PM (#30772650)

        Remember when the left-wingers merely suspected GWB of thinking about possibly doing something similar and how apeshit crazy they went over that slim possibility?

        Where are those people now?

        Uh.... right here? Or are you trying to say that if one person on slashdot says something, every person on slashdot must say the same thing as well? Cuz I can't help you with that.

        It was a dumb thing then, it's a dumb thing now, and I hope Sunstein gets crucified for even suggesting that. This is the kind of crap that I'm willing to hold against Obama come election day. His only chance then would be to run against Palin.

        • Re:GWB (Score:5, Insightful)

          by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:20PM (#30773310) Homepage Journal

          It was a dumb thing then, it's a dumb thing now, and I hope Sunstein gets crucified for even suggesting that.

          Neutron, did you actually read Sunstein's paper, or only the World Net Daily story?

          Seriously, friend, go to the source on this one.

          • Re:GWB (Score:5, Interesting)

            by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:28PM (#30773392)

            Heh, I posted this before I read the actual article, and before I took a look at the rest of the WND site. I guess I should stop believing that front page stories on slashdot won't take their main arguments from a crackpot site.

            Let me rephrase: if Sunstein would propose something like the summary suggests, he should be crucified and run out of office. His actual paper, however, is merely something I disagree with: that hardcore conspiracy theorists can be reasoned with. I don't think we have the resources to engage in every online forum where someone says something crazy. I believe a far better approach is to identify rumors and conspiracies, and use an existing official vehicle to debunk them.

            Now, part of the new job of that official vehicle could be to more actively participate in social media - but that's a far cry from the discussed idea to actually go to online forums and take these people head-on. Cultivate ties and make sure your voice heard - but don't try to chase down every nutcase on the web.

  • by Kazoo the Clown (644526) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:32PM (#30771978)
    What do you expect from the party of Barbara Streisand, than to institutionalize the "Streisand Effect"?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:50PM (#30772230)

      As an outsider who used to be a liberal, I find conservatives' fixation on Barbara Streisand to be utterly bizarre. When I was a liberal, the only times I ever thought about Barbara Streisand were when conservative wackadoos got enraged over things she said or did -- and that was just long enough to think "Barbara Streisand? Huh? Who gives a shit?" The other liberals I knew had more or less the same reaction.

        Now that I've moved to a position outside that of the R vs. D "Go team!" demographics, I think I grasp the foundation of the problem: modern conservative politics, lacking much in the way of coherent principles since Goldwater went down, has to appeal to emotion. Consequently, the conservative hate machine is born, and every two minutes, there has to be a new Two Minutes Hate, and a constant cycling of new targets for hatred. Otherwise conservatives might stop being angry for a moment and start thinking for themselves. This would be as dangerous for Republican politicians as if the Democratic base really sat down and thought about what they actually want and whether their politicians ever showed any inclination of giving it to them. (No, being the answer to that. The Democratic party is a self-contained, self-interested machine at this point.)

        Then again, I guess that "Streisand Effect" is also easier for conservatives to stomach than "Nixon Effect", the real modern archetype of an individual who made things worse by trying to hush everything up.

        - mantar

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by earlymon (1116185)

        You're missing the valid double-Streisand play by the parent poster possibly because you overlook two things:

        First, see:

        http://www.amazon.com/Live-Concert-Forum-Barbra-Streisand/dp/B0000024ZL/ [amazon.com]

        That has a recording of her appearing at a George McGovern ('72 Democratic presidential candidate) fund-raising event, smoking a joint between songs, saying as I recall something like - "We have to face our problems head-on!"

        That entrenched her as an icon for Democrats and liberalism.

        Second:

        There was no internet in Nix

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:34PM (#30772004)

    Don't you merely confirm their conspiracy theories with this dunderheaded plan?

  • GENIUS! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:36PM (#30772040) Journal

    What better way to prove that there isn't a conspiracy
    THAN TO TRY AND STOP PEOPLE FROM SPREADING IT.

    This would have been a good article to write one of my 5 or 6 paragraph conspiracy theories that I whip up out of thin air, but I already did one of those today, and my brain hurts.

    • Re:GENIUS! (Score:5, Funny)

      by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:46PM (#30772172) Homepage

      and my brain hurts.

      Oh no! That's not mental fatigue, that's their mind-control satellite preventing you from concocting further conspiracy theories! It's too late for you, brother, but don't worry. I'll fight on, spreading the truth about the critical role Fluoride and the Cadbury Bunny played in the 9/11 attacks... as soon as I get some Tylenol... Ow...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:40PM (#30772076)

    the Obama administration has become very concerned with the situation in Azeroth and plan to spend 10 billion in on-line gold to help the cause.

  • by omar.sahal (687649) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:43PM (#30772118) Homepage Journal
    Lilly levered Democrats, the solution lies with cruise missiles.
  • Brilliant! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by straponego (521991) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:45PM (#30772148)
    By floating this, he's ensured that participants in these groups, who by definition are more suspicious than most, will now be paranoid that their peers are government infiltrators. They'll be less open with each other, and may quit altogether. And the Man doesn't even have to follow through to have this effect-- it's totally free! Well played, fascist.

    Of course, social interaction may be the last thing holding some of the target audience from going lone gunman, but you can't make an omelette without killing a few people. At least, I can't. And the more incidents we have, the more funding the security apparatus gets. There is no downside!

    Wait... should I post this? ...ah, I trust you guys.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Wonko the Sane (25252) *

      And the more incidents we have, the more funding the security apparatus gets.

      Unless you underestimate the number of lone gunmen and you security apparatus suddenly suffers a total existence failure.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      but you can't make an omelette without killing a few people. At least, I can't.

      I don't know if you learned it from your Mother or what the deal is, but you're doing it wrong.

  • Not a good source (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OverlordQ (264228) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:46PM (#30772170) Journal

    I'd probably consider myself right of center, but I also don't think World Net Daily is a very unbiased source.

  • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:46PM (#30772178)
    First they came for the 9/11 truthers, and I said noth- well, actually, anything they can do to mess with *those* loons is OK by me. Can they eff up ther anti-vaxxers, too?
  • Fire him (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Pedrito (94783) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:48PM (#30772198) Homepage
    He ought to be fired for being stupid enough to think the government should waste even a penny dealing with conspiracy theorists. Just ignore them. It works just fine. Sure, they pop up now and then, but really, think about it: Of all the various theories about the Kennedy assassination, what do any of them matter in the long run? How does it really affect the government? It doesn't.

    All the 9/11 conspiracy theorists have accomplished what? Pretty much nothing.

    The more important question is: Who gets to decide who is the conspiracy theorists? That's where the real danger is. Hard to believe Obama would hire such an idiot. Sounds like a George Bush kinda guy.
  • by Rei (128717) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:49PM (#30772208) Homepage

    Why not link in HuffingtonPost, FreeRepublic, and MichaelMoore.com while you're at it. ;)

    For those who care about the actual paper [ssrn.com] rather than the right-wing spin of it:

    --------

    Abstract:
    Many millions of people hold conspiracy theories; they believe that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event. A recent example is the belief, widespread in some parts of the world, that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out not by Al Qaeda, but by Israel or the United States. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined. Such theories typically spread as a result of identifiable cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and reputational influences. A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a crippled epistemology, in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. Various policy dilemmas, such as the question whether it is better for government to rebut conspiracy theories or to ignore them, are explored in this light.
    ------

    Note how the Slashdot header linked to COINTELPRO, to imply that that's what's being talked about? Even in the *scenario* where infiltration is discussed, the paper explicitly states, "By this we do not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions." The paper is about how (or whether to) dispel conspiracy theories to prevent them from spreading, not to prosecute the individuals who promote them. Cognitive infiltration is discussed (again, in purely theoretical terms) in not just a covert manner, but also an overt manner. A lot (although not all) of the paper also is about overseas actions against muslim radical organizations, too, giving examples of tactics we're already employing to dispel conspiracy theories that help fuel terrorist organizations. Anyone who doesn't realize that our government actively employs propaganda even against non-conspiracy-theories isn't paying attention.

    Now, all of that said, Sunstein does come across in the end as as supporting debunking conspiracy theories which can "create or fuel violence" by "rebutting more rather than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by cogitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy-minded groups and informationally isolated social networks." Which form of cognitive infiltration discussed -- covert or overt -- is not mentioned, nor is whether this is a reference to domestic, international, or both kinds of conspiracy theories.

    I disagree, but it's not as radical of a paper as it's being made out to be.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by C10H14N2 (640033)

      Few things have annoyed me as much as when I worked inside a particular three-letter acronym department than watching the public debate about something totally inflammatory while the department was unambiguously in the right by any reasonable standard, but the policy was to not engage in the debate with anyone but Congress. Of course, many members of Congress were fanning the flames for their own political gain without the slightest actual interest in the real (lack of a) problem. This wasn't a matter of va

  • To me this reads like a complete admission that government has little or nothing to fear from standard media, which is something I've felt for a long time. And they think I should be giving them my money or that Google should be paying them for their worthless prattling of the establishment line.

  • by Rene S. Hollan (1943) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @05:56PM (#30772284)

    ... and this is my Second Amendment Gun.

    ANY QUESTIONS?

  • by sirwired (27582) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:02PM (#30772360)

    If you read the damn paper, you will learn that a banning of such sites is listed as one of many responses that could be taken, but the author pointedly did not suggest that actually be done. The bulk of the paper focuses on when and how the govt. should attempt to counter conspiracy theories.

    As far as the govt. infiltrating groups that propound conspiracy theories: This is stated as a mechanism for the govt. to sow its own views into the groups, not as a law-enforcement mechanism. I view this as nothing more than speech. Just as citizens can speak, so can the government. If Joe Random Citizen can join a group and talk about random B.S., why can Joe Random PR-Flack not do the same?

    SirWired

  • Obama Cares (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LostCluster (625375) * on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:04PM (#30772386)

    Post anything negative to a Twitter-aware company like Comcast, and they connect you with somebody from corporate who will set right whatever you're complaining about. What's the difference between that and the Air Force wanting to debate people spreading inaccurate information about them?

    If you allow comments on your blog... that's something who disagree with you can use.

  • by Raul654 (453029) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:04PM (#30772388) Homepage

    World Net Daily is a few fries short of a happy meal. This is the same news organization that claims that Obama worked to fund terrorists [wnd.com], that 9/11 was caused by the New Yorkers who had it coming [archive.org], and that the Russian spy poisoned by the KGB using polonium was actually a muslim terrorist trying to sneak radioactive materials into the US [wnd.com]. They are basically a forum for conspiracy theories wrapped up in nice packaging.

  • by Katchu (1036242) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:06PM (#30772428)
    I can't help but recall : http://xkcd.com/386/ [xkcd.com]
  • by BorgAssimilator (1167391) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:06PM (#30772432)
    Why is our tax money being used for this?

    I mean, I don't care about people who think the moon landing is fake. Let them spend their time thinking that. It doesn't hurt me. What does hurt me is _my_ hard earned money being used for a useless cause.

    It even states in TFA that "some conspiracy theories, under [their] definition, have turned out to be true." So why spend time and energy arguing potentially the wrong side?
  • by Seor Jojoba (519752) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:07PM (#30772440) Homepage

    Don't let yourself get bent out of shape over this. Read the paper which is being quoted by the article before you start believing nonsense and posting your own. The Klein article misrepresents and quotes out of context. For example, here is the Cass Sunstein quote that Aaron Klein picks and edits to his liking:

    "We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories."

    Sounds really scary right? Okay, here is the full paragraph from Sunstein's paper, available online at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1084585 [ssrn.com] :

    What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

    Note the last sentence. Sunstein leaves the 2 points quoted by Klein out of the recommendation. The paper itself is somewhat insightful and worth a skim. There are things to disagree with perhaps, but this isn't some civil liberty crushing maniac.

  • by Bazzargh (39195) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @09:30PM (#30774472)

    advocated in a recent paper the 'cognitive infiltration' of groups that advocate 'conspiracy theories'[first link]... Sunstein has also recently advocated banning websites which post 'right-wing rumors' and bringing back the Fairness Doctrine.[second link]

    What's interesting about these two bits of the summary is that both are based on the same article by Sunstein, summarized differently by different wingnut websites. I have to conclude that the submitter didn't read the article. At all. Hey, I can quote out of context as well as the next guy:

    government may do best to ignore conspiracy theories and theorists even if it justifiably fears that they will have
    harmful effects, because government action may make things worse.

    Does that quote misrepresent the article? Yes, it does. But actually, less than the summary does, since Sunstein actually advocates 'ignore' in some circumstances. However - bans? If you read the article you'd see that banning is an option he explicitly rejects!! (clue: its option 1 of 5, where only 3, 4, 5 make the cut; its the only time the word 'ban' appears in the paper...). There might be something interesting to say about this article. But the stuff you've linked to in the summary, and the summary itself? That's just so far off target, its not even a decent starting point for a conversation.

    Can we get back to the news for nerds, where someone claims Knuth advocates using O(n^2) algorithms, just because he mentions them (rolls eyes)

  • by phoomp (1098855) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @10:06PM (#30774740)
    What happens when you conspire to infiltrate groups with conspiracy theories?

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