Infiltrating ‘Conspiracy Theory’ Groups

A paper co-authored by the head of the Obama administration’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass Sunstein, proposes that government agents could infiltrate groups deemed to be promoting “conspiracy theories.” Sunstein and his co-author, Adrian Vermeule, wrote the following in the paper:

Government agents (and their allies) 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. … government officials would participate anonymously or even with false identities.

This particular paper just came to my attention. However, Sunstein has been subject of criticism in the past for his previous writings in favor of tighter regulation of broadcast and internet content as well as a new book reportedly calling for increased monitoring and regulation of “false rumors,” specifically recounting President Obama’s critics’ attempts to link him with 1960’s radical William Ayers.

A key problem with the proposals in this paper is that the government would be responsible for defining what is or is not a “conspiracy theory.” Does anyone really trust government bureaucrats to make that call? That is not even to mention the ethical and constitutional dilemmas with government agents secretly spying on citizens.

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