Does the NSA target websites about the assassination of President Kennedy for “cognitive infiltration?”
“These agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself,” Greenwald wrote earlier this week in The Intercept. The accompanying documents, from Edward Snowden, prove the claim.
The “Online Covert Operations,” mounted by the Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), targeted the hacker’s collective Anonymous and other perceived enemies, not just suspected terrorists, in 2010 and 2011, the documents show.
Nothing in the GCHQ slideshows indicates that JFK conspiracy sites have been targeted. But there is reason to inquire.
Obama aide proposed ‘cognitive infiltration’
As Greenwald notes, one former adviser to President Obama, Cass Sunstein has advocated using such tactics against online JFK discussion groups.
Sunstein, former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” JFK online groups and websites to combat their supposedly harmful message.
Sunstein proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” to combat what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the September 11 attacks, the moon landing, and JFK’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Sunstein and co-author Adrian Vermeule theorized that JFK conspiracy theories spread via “reputational cascades.”
In a reputational cascade, they opine, “people think that they know what is right, or what is likely to be right, but they nonetheless go along with the crowd in order to maintain the good opinion of others.”
They cited JFK as an example:
“Suppose that Albert suggests that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, and that Barbara concurs with Albert, not because she actually thinks that Albert is right, but because she does not wish to seem, to Albert, to be some kind of dupe. If Albert and Barbara say that the CIA was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, Cynthia might not contradict them publicly and might even appear to share their judgment — not because she believes that judgment to be correct, but because she does not want to face their hostility or lose their good opinion. It should be easy to see how this process might generate a cascade. Once Albert, Barbara, and Cynthia offer a united front on the issue, their friend David might be reluctant to contradict them even if he thinks that they are wrong.”
(I must say that this scenario is laughably off the mark when it comes to the JFK Facts audience. Our readers don’t defer to anyone’s else’s judgment on the question of JFK and the CIA.)
What is to be done?
Sunstein and Vermeule argued “there would seem to be ample reason for government efforts to introduce some cognitive diversity into the groups that generate conspiracy theories. Social cascades are sometimes quite fragile, precisely because they are based on small slivers of information. Once corrective information is introduced, large numbers of people can be shifted to different views. If government is able to have credibility, or to act through credible agents, it might well be successful in dislodging beliefs that are held only because no one contradicts them.”
Within a year of writing those words, Sunstein was working in the White House.
Most anti-conspiratorial JFK writers I know regarded Sunstein’s proposals as embarrassing and inappropriate. Only the most paranoid among us thought a Western intelligence agency actually might take up such a mission.
A threat to my business?
As the proprietor of a growing JFK website, I have to ask: did GCHQ or NSA ever take up Sunstein’s suggestion and target (gulp) me and my customers?
I put two questions to the NSA Public Affairs office, first at 12:22 yesterday and again at 8:22 this morning.
Read Cass Sunsein and Adrian Vermeule on the need for ‘cognitive infilttration’of JFK Web sites.