Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation

The webpage, Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation, is a State Department project.* The Obama Administration rolled out the webpage in 2010. Likely University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein’s work, or inspired by it, the webpage is an example of state-organized subterfuge.

Why do I suspect Sunstein is behind the project? In a working paper written in 2007, “Conspiracy Theories” (see Harvard University Law School Public Law & Legal Research Paper Series, No. 08-03, January 15), Sunstein, now administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, pondered the government response to “problem” of conspiracy theories. 

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).**

A conspiracy theory is an explanation of events harmful to persons and societies attributable to plots hatched in secret. The phrase is unremarkable. At least it should be. The fact that conspiracies exist and that they are seen as bad by most people might explain why there is a category in the criminal law covering them. A theory is an explanation of a set of facts in terms of their interrelations. Every police officer and prosecutor who pursues a conspiracy has a theory about it. The prosecutor’s goal is to convince judge and jury that her theory is the best explanation for the facts.

From Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation:

Conspiracy theories exist in the realm of myth, where imaginations run wild, fears trump facts, and evidence is ignored. As a superpower, the United States is often cast as a villain in these dramas.

When persons claim that “conspiracy theories exist in the realm of myth, where imaginations run wild, fears trump facts, and evidence is ignored,” they mean to short-circuit theories about historical events and social trends where conspiracy is an important element. This is about conditioning the public to engage in thought-stopping. If the author of the web site were objective, he would distinguish between, on the one hand, conspiracy theories, which are legitimate, and, on the other hand, conspiracy fantasies, which aren’t. How do you know the difference? You have to look into them. But propagandists like Sunstein don’t want you looking into them. He believes the government should tell you how to think and what to think about.

Conspiracies can be big or small. Because they are perpetrated by those with moneyed and institutional power, the big ones are far more damaging and harder to control and punish. The big ones are also the more interesting and—obviously, because they are so damaging—the more important ones to consider. It is to these conspiracies that Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation is dedicated to denying, namely the explanation of historical and social events by exposing clandestine operations by persons and organizations with money and institutional power.

Moreover, many of the conspiracies identified on Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation are not conspiracies at all, as those involved in planning, as well as their plans, unfolded overtly. Characterizing these as conspiracy theories asks the public to deny what it occurring out in the open. The fact that the United States government is the major villain in world affairs today and had been for decades is hardly a conspiracy. For a comprehensive account of its villainous ways, read Killing Hope by William Blum. Or read Chomsky and Herman’s Political Economy of Human Rights series The Washington Connection and Third World FascismAfter the Cataclysm, and Manufacturing Consent.

From Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation

Economic conspiracy theories are often based on the false, but popular, idea that powerful individuals are motivated overwhelmingly by their desire for wealth, rather than the wide variety of human motivations we all experience. (This one-dimensional, cartoonish view of human nature is at the heart of Marxist ideology, which once held hundreds of millions under its sway.)

Marxism understands that these other motives are irrelevant because they are necessarily secondary. The capitalist is a personification of the system imperative to accumulate capital. Arguably, Marxism doesn’t have a view of human nature. Marx saw human beings as personifications of social relations. In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues that “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” For this reason, the wealthy are motivated by their desire for wealth because it is their social role in the capitalist mode of production to possess this desire and continually act upon it. This fact does not preclude “the wide variety of human motivations we all experience.” There is nothing cartoonish about Marxism. Judged in terms of relevant forms of validity (construct, convergent, content, and criterion-related), it is the most complete, dynamic, and successful method for explaining history and social change. 

One fantasy, reflecting this simplistic, unimaginative way of interpreting human events, falsely claims that U.S. national security agencies employ “economic hit men” to entrap countries with huge amounts of debt.

This isn’t a conspiracy but a basic fact of US foreign policy, which serves the interests of the global corporate class. The United States is the main imperialist power providing the intelligence and physical might that secures global domination by the international banking cartel and transnational corporate powers that benefit from the prevailing economic arrangements. The reason the US spends almost 60 percent of its discretionary budget on the military-industrial complex (the US share of global military spending exceeds 40 percent of the total) is to provide muscle for the ruling elite. These functions and the arrangements they serve are in plain sight. To be sure, various conspiracies help maintain the status quo, but the central premise of the quote provided above—that the powers-that-be use debt to entrap countries—is not a conspiracy. This is the way international political economy works. Study the situation in Europe to see for yourself. Look at the situations of Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal. The quote attempts to take a self-evident truth and transform it into a conspiracy so it can be dismissed as a conspiracy theory.


* As of 7.26.2021, the day I am migrating this entry from Blogger, the Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation webpage appears to have been removed. Was it removed by the Trump administration?

** How can legal scholar seriously write that (1) and (2) “will have a place under imaginable conditions” without also implying that a totalitarian state would be necessary for such “instruments” to be imaginable? As for (3), (4), and (5), “counterspeech”? That’s not Orwellian at all.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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