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).
Sunstein then offers a truly brilliant plan for how the government should combat conspiracy theories: by mounting secret conspiracies against conspiracy theorists!
Here we suggest two concrete ideas for government officials attempting to fashion a response to such theories. First, responding to more rather than fewer conspiracy theories has a kind of synergy benefit: it reduces the legitimating effect of responding to any one of them, because it dilutes the contrast with unrebutted theories. Second, we suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.
What could be more sanity-inducing than clandestine government conspiracies against conspiracy theorists?
Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.
A conspiring government that includes, say, Cass Sunstein in a key role would be the very definition of "well-motivated," so we don't have to worry about that.
Lots of other governments have come up with ideas similar to Sunstein's of "infiltration" of anti-government groups, leading to the amusing history of double agents turning into agents provocateurs, either at the behest of their bosses in the government or freelancing. People in these jobs, unsurprisingly, have a strong incentive to use their positions as plants within anti-government organizations to whip up exactly the kind of anti-government views and behavior the government is supposedly paying them to suppress. It's do it yourself job security!
For example, in 1905 the Czarist government almost fell after the Bloody Sunday march on the Winter Palace organized by Father Georgi Gapon, who was a double agent working with the Czar's secret police (and had his own agenda as well -- it's all very complicated, as is typical whenever governments employ these tactics).
Also, as a commenter pointed out, the Romanov dynasty's best hope for survival, the formidable reforming conservative prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, was assassinated in 1911 by Dmitry Bogrov, a leftist radical who was also working for the Czar's secret police.
Similarly, as a commenter pointed out, neo-Nazi shock jock Hal Turner was on the payroll of the FBI for much of the last decade, a case to which the press has paid little attention. Turner was arrested last June for making death threats against Richard Posner and two other federal judges.
In my experience, the greater problem than the public being overly willing to "connect the dots" and imagine false secret conspiracies is the mainstream press being too unwilling to notice the effects of actual public conspiracies.
For instance, the old-fashioned Bilderberg Group is a bunch of rich, powerful people who quietly get together in fancy hotels and talk things over in private, away from the press. The new-fangled Davos conspiracy, in contrast, is a bunch of rich, powerful blowhards with publicity agents who invite favored journalists, such as Tom Friedman, to lecture them in public on their brilliant insights. Not surprisingly, the invited journalists come away with a deep sense of empathy for these public-spirited captains of global industry and finance who find their speeches so fascinating.
Even more strikingly, in 2002-2004, President George W. Bush publicly conspired with the financial industry, Congress, the Executive Branch, both political parties, the real estate industry, NGO's, immigrant groups, leftist "affordable housing" activists, religious groups, and the press to batter down traditional down payment requirements on home mortgages in the name of racial equality, peaking with his October 15, 2002 "White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership." Yet, following the economic crisis in which zero down mortgages played a seminal role, this Bush-orchestrated public conspiracy has largely disappeared down the memory hole.
Similarly, Bush's highly publicized campaign in the name of fighting discrimination against air security scrutinizing Arabs, which he publicly announced during his second Presidential debate with Al Gore, and followed up on throughout his first year in office (even after 9/11!), has evaporated from the media's memory.