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Government Privacy United States Politics Your Rights Online

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 Loki_1929 (550940) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:42PM (#30772104) Journal

    He's doing just about everything he can to help the GOP win every seat in Congress that's up for election this year. Between him and the Democrats in Congress, it's a wonder anyone's left to support the lot of them. Perhaps if the GOP made an effort to make itself more palatable (or distinguishable), they'd be the ones in a supermajority.

  • by Em Emalb (452530) <ememalb&gmail,com> on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:43PM (#30772120) Homepage Journal

    The question is, who gets to decide which is which?

    I dunno, who can yell the loudest? They usually win these days it seems.

  • by BobMcD (601576) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:55PM (#30772280)

    State-sponsored infiltration is NOT free speech. Free speech means the government doesn't control (nor attempt to influence) what people are discussing. Planting paid 'experts' in strategic locations to diffuse conversation is so far from unrestricted speech that I can only assume you have no idea what's actually being suggested.


    By "crippled epistemology" Sunstein means that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust. Therefore, Sunstein argued in the article, it would not work to simply refute the conspiracy theories in public -- the very sources that conspiracy theorists believe would have to be infiltrated.

    In a negative light, this means "find the people saying things we don't like and replace them with people who say what we want."

    And despite the meme at play, this is NOT a conspiracy theory, it is exactly what he is proposing.

  • by BobMcD (601576) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @06:58PM (#30772304)

    It is in no way a violation of freedom of speech to put information out there to clarify a certain point of view but it's the essence of freedom of speech.

    That's exactly what he is proposing the government avoid doing. He says that the government attempting to inform people will strengthen the conspiracist's belief.

    Instead he proposes the government REPLACE the trusted sources of information COVERTLY.

    Viola, violation of freedom of speech.

  • Turn the Feds? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:06PM (#30772426)

    I would welcome a Fed listening in. After a while maybe, just maybe, he'll start to see things from the other side.

    Any asshole can mount a one man attack an have everyone hate him. But to get the folks on the inside to see it you way? Brilliance.

    Start comparing the Fed with the Stazi? Sure, at first he's drunk the Kool-Aid and is all gung-ho - out to catch some terrorists - USA! USA! USA!

    But then, one day, he goes online and reads the Stazi link that someone posted. Now, the Fed is USA! Yeah.

    Later on, maybe he starts to realize that the Constitution he's sworn to uphold is eroded ever so slightly when he spies on citizens.

    Then maybe, he wonders, if the Constitution is being eroded and eventually it becomes more of a meaningless symbol, then exactly what is he defending? America? The values of America are in the Constitution that he may be violating. So, what's he fighting for? Our way of life? Our way of life is the life specified in the Constitution - of course, lately, our "way of life" == cheap oil but that's another rant.

    Hah! Who am I kidding! He's going to spy, fuck the Constitution, go home and watch '24' while polishing his gun.

  • by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:10PM (#30772486) Homepage Journal

    However, there ARE people out there who practice irresponsible dissent, and their sole purpose is to disrupt the lives of everyone in order to make a point which most find irrational.

    You're absolutely right. If the Republicans win the next election, I hope they vote to silence irresponsible dissenters who say things like:

    • Global Climate Change is real.
    • Intellectual Property is imaginary.
    • Free Software is good for America.
    • Pot should be legalized.
    • Gay marriage should be legalized.
    • Health care reform is necessary.
    • Networks should be neutral.
    • Abortion should remain legal.
    • Monsanto should be limited.

    Any time you wish your buddies had a power, imagine what it would be like if the other team had that same ability.

  • by BobMcD (601576) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:11PM (#30772490)

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

    I find the very notion that an individual who finds thought dangerous can participate in a democratic government to be just about as radical as it gets.

    People should be encouraged to explore their theories, not prevented from thinking about them.

  • by ubernostrum (219442) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:41PM (#30772862) Homepage

    Okay, thanks for straightening that out, but I think your analysis evades a crucial point: why does the government *care* about conspiracy theorists and what they think?

    The newspaper I work for published an article the other day about a flu vaccination clinic being offered by the local health department. The first few comments posted to the online version were all copypasta from Infowars (a conspiracy-theory site) alleging that flu vaccines are deliberate mass-murder tools used by a shadowy one-world organization to engage in "softkill eugenics" and wipe out people who oppose them. This is an extreme example, of course, but it shows a real problem: if enough people believe even relatively mild conspiracy theories about flu vaccines, then they'll refuse to get vaccinated and public health -- something it's the government's job to promote and maintain -- will suffer. This means that rebutting and refuting such theories becomes a part of the government's job, as furthering the goal of public health.

  • by C10H14N2 (640033) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:55PM (#30773044)

    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 vague opinion, either, it was an issue of rigorously documented fact that easily refuted the arguments going on in public.

    Unfortunately, even if we had posted the proof on every major network at prime-time for a month straight, the minds in need of changing would not have changed in the slightest -- largely because the debate wasn't really about the actual topic, but other convenient vested political interests. Besides, the ethical boundaries, not to mention laws, it would be necessary to break in order to reveal the proof were so numerous that, especially in light of the futility of the public argument, the policy of no-comment actually made sense.

    I fear they are about to rediscover that painfully routine circumstance here...

  • by rtb61 (674572) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @07:59PM (#30773104) Homepage

    For most people by far the majority, the conspiracy sites are nothing more than entertainment and light reading, quite a lot of fun in fact. Sure I know there a two basic types, those in it for a profit trying to inflame craziness in the hopes of selling advertising space and various other bits of junk and others well have a bit of a slippery grasp on reality. The big difference between the two is of course the for profit conspiracy sites are a lot better and of course the other one can be a little sad (their trying but they just cant seem to get a grasp on reality).

    Whoops, I forgot the third type, the misinformation group, for them of course functioning conspiracy sites are the best means by which to spread, the same but different, versions of reality.

    Of course a term like "cognitive infiltration: implies the use of psychological trained professional who will use their skills to, well, psychologically harm those individuals, rather than heal them, really not very nice. C'mon you professionally paranoid types there a billions of web pages, the reality is the conspiracy pages tend to disappear amongst them leaving very little real impact upon society, apart from a bit of cathartic relief from the real every days woes and worries, nothing like a major conspiracy to take you away from being unable to pay for health care, having no job security, worrying about crazy religious fundamentalists, being concerned about all the sociopath in politics and major corporations or pollution killing you slowly.

    Besides they are also useful to release greatly exaggerated version of troublesome truths so that when the truth finally comes out it is nowhere near as severe as the most popular conspiracy theory version of it. The professionally paranoid really have to take a step back and look at themselves in the mirror. Yes, you took the job because you are a bit of a control freak, you daily exposure to some of the nastiest elements of human society has in reality made you truly a bit paranoid and now you have a tendency to over react in your desire to retain control so loosen up a bit and have a laugh. Oh yeah speaking of laughter, that is likely the best way to deal with some of the more egregious sites, just avoid mocking them it doesn't really work.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @08:15PM (#30773258)

    You seem to be ignoring psychological behaviours like cognitive dissonance. People with borderline paranoid delusions are much more likely to dismiss out of hand (without any rational analysis) any arguments coming from the object of their paranoia. On the other hand they may be more receptive to those rational arguments if they appear to be coming from a group they have accepted. So the point is that if you want the honest truth to be winning out, it needs to be presented on a level playing field. The only way to achieve that with borderline paranoid schizophrenics may be to arrange that those come from the groups they trust by infiltrating those groups.

    That said, bad leaders can be replaced without overly negatively affecting a movement if that becomes necessary. If Lenin's dictatorial tendencies and ruthlessness had been widely exposed earlier, then the more moderate leaders of the mensheviks might have obtained control of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, leading to a very different Russia, post 1918. That exposure wouldn't have stopped the Russian Revolution though since it wouldn't have eliminated the fundamental societal pressures that led to it, but it would have lessened its negative impact.

    If you're dealing with a group of people with fundamentally poor reasoning and a deeply flawed charismatic leader, then I have no problem with exposing that leader's flaws to lessen their impact. If there are genuine issues behind the group's formation then they will survive the leader's downfall and the issues will eventually get addressed over time, but with less violence.

  • Re:GWB (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @08:28PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @08:35PM (#30773490)

    The idea of using government agents here sounds pretty much like the lines being spouted by the Chinese government over the Google hack: media in China are expected to actively create a "positive environment" for the government and "guide" public opinion.

  • by SETIGuy (33768) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @08:39PM (#30773528) Homepage

    The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, it does not qualify whether that speech is "responsible", "irresponsible" or any shade in between.

    The courts are really confused on many free speech point. Yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater is apparently "irresponsible," and is therefore not covered under free speech. On the other hand, getting paid to lie while simultaneously calling your lies "news" is apparently protected free speech. Attempting to call attention to these lies, on the other hand, is apparently not free speech. Demonstrating outside of a designated "free speech" zone is apparently "irresponsible" and therefore is not protected speech. Handing your congressperson a pile of cash in an attempt to affect the legislative process, on the other hand, is protected free speech.

    I'd just be happy if libel and slander laws applied equally to the government and those making accusations against the government.

    For example, Mr. Asspimple Oxycontin was on the radio yesterday accusing people in the White House of diverting funds donated to the Haiti relief efforts towards the Obama campaign. That's a pretty serious accusation of a crime. I think Asspimple should be held responsible for making such an accusation of criminal activity, unless he can back it up.

  • by Anachragnome (1008495) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @08:41PM (#30773540)

    "So. What would you call yourself in political terms?"

    "I'm a Democratic Carlinist."

    No wonder he was so bitter towards the end.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 14, 2010 @08:51PM (#30773676)

    Maybe you are not familiar with putting all the options on the table before dismissing the bad ones.

  • by causality (777677) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @09:58PM (#30774234)

    Yes, it's quite horrible that people spreading mistruth to the public would have their lies exposed and debunked. Oh the horror!

    The fact that they take it so seriously and treat it like such a threat makes me wonder if it's "mistruth". It makes me wonder that far more so than anything the "conspiracy nuts" themselves could have said.

    Let's just say that everything the "conspiracy nuts" say is 100% false. Let's say further that too many (whatever that means) people are believing these conspiracy theories. The correct way to deal with that is to teach critical thinking, logic, rhetoric, and argumentation as mandatory basic courses in all public schools. Make these classes tough so that no one graduates without knowing how to deconstruct an argument. Except they'd rather not do that, because such a tough-minded populace would demand higher-quality legislators (they'd probably call them malcontents). Dumb people with a group mentality are so much easier to control than staunch individualists who can think for themselves.

  • by uuddlrlrab (1617237) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @10:27PM (#30774448)

    ...I really never thought I'd live to see the day when someone praised Moore and Limbaugh in the same sentence.

    As far as Limbaugh goes, I forgot when the spirit of the 1st amendment was so people could encourage things like this [wikipedia.org]...

    The dream end of [Operation Chaos] is that this keeps up to the convention, and that we have a recreation of Chicago 1968 with burning cars, protests, fire, and literal riots and all of that, that is the objective here.

    Yeah, great use of those 1st amendment rights, Oxy-Rush. If you wonder why on earth bad ideas like the one in TFA get started, look no further than the talking heads and stuffed shirts on conservative KRWA [wikipedia.org] radio, and the Teabag-grabbers still incoherently screeching, "DEATH PANELS, DEATH PANELS!" or, "KENYAN NATIONAL, KENYAN NATIONAL!!" long after the myth has been debunked. If the OP is to be believed, this wanders uncomfortably close to artificially shaping public opinion, and may be a step in the wrong direction. On the other hand, how does this administration deal with a an angry mob intent on tar-and-feathering them for the crimes (yes, crimes. Not a typo) that the previous administration committed? As far as I see it, debunking myths and lies is, at least, a noble cause. It's just the methodology that's dubious.

  • by phoomp (1098855) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @11:06PM (#30774740)
    What happens when you conspire to infiltrate groups with conspiracy theories?
  • by electrons_are_brave (1344423) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @11:38PM (#30774972)
    That's very valid and would need to be kept in mind while TREATING people with the types of paranoias that lead them to be vulnerable to "charismatic leaders", or focusing on getting individuals away from cults (or relationships)where they are being exploited by people who target those with poor mental health.

    But the Government is not talking about that. They are talking countering anti-government propaganda. And what might be valid to prevent another Jones Town suicide situation, is not valid to interfere with political opposition, no matter how loopy it may be.

    Like it or lump it, delusional people still have the right to freedom of speech, the right to form political parties, and the right to identify and uncover "conspiracies" (real or imaginary).

    If the groups are promoting crimal actions - the government can prosecute them through the criminal system. If they are ripping vulnerable people off - then deal with it as fraud. And the governement could give better funding to community groups that try to counter cults.

    But government as arbitor of the "truth"? No way.

  • by DigiShaman (671371) on Friday January 15, 2010 @12:56AM (#30775418) Homepage

    Is there a reason you use the (Republican Party created) term "Democrat party", just out of curiosity?

    Yes, because they're anything BUT democratic. Just look up voter fraud and intimidation. Here's a video recording of the later in 2008 election cycle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neGbKHyGuHU [youtube.com]

    The other day I listened to this man opine about how it would be irresponsible to expect taxpayers to pay for a lifesaving operation if you could not afford it yourself. Just die if you can't pay was the message.

    Healthcare debate is a huge one. But in short, his view is that -we- as individuals should be paying into the systems and making individual choices when financially able to do so. However, he's against letting the Federal Government be the sole arbiter of support between you and your doctor. I agree with him as many others do. I'm sorry you have a problem with that.

    but I do think that programs like his need to be VERY clearly advertised as entertainment and nothing more.

    Well actually, he's both entertaining AND informative. His ratings speak for themselves.

    ...and really, a Dittohead? Barack the Magic Negro and all that? I find that very sad.

    Actually, the term "Magic Negro" was coined in an article written by the LA Times. In fact, you can read that very article at this link.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-ehrenstein19mar19,0,3391015.story [latimes.com]

    Rush Limbaugh thought it was entertaining to have a parody song created to mock the issue. Below is the link to it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZyPaivOARM [youtube.com]

    Ruch Limbaugh also defended himself regarding the "Magic Negro" bit. Blow is the link to it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbBgRiHYrs0&feature=related [youtube.com]

  • Call me gullible, but why is that concept so laughable? Sure, WND's article about is is really bad writing, but the idea that soy (which does have a lot of estrogen) being fed to babies affects them doesn't seem outlandish at all. When a man gets a "gender change," isn't estrogen the main ingredient to the prescriptions?

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