Friday, December 29, 2017

Poor Cass Sunstein, Out of Power and So Very Misunderstood...,


NewYorker |  In 2010, Marc Estrin, a novelist and far-left activist from Vermont, found an online version of a paper by Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and the most frequently cited legal scholar in the world. The paper, called “Conspiracy Theories,” was first published in 2008, in a small academic journal called the Journal of Political Philosophy. In it, Sunstein and his Harvard colleague Adrian Vermeule attempted to explain how conspiracy theories spread, especially online. At one point, they made a radical proposal: “Our main policy claim here is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.” The authors’ primary example of a conspiracy theory was the belief that 9/11 was an inside job; they defined “cognitive infiltration” as a program “whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”

Nowhere in the final version of the paper did Sunstein and Vermeule state the obvious fact that a government ban on conspiracy theories would be unconstitutional and possibly dangerous. (In a draft that was posted online, which remains more widely read, they emphasized that censorship is “inconsistent with principles of freedom of expression,” although they “could imagine circumstances in which a conspiracy theory became so pervasive, and so dangerous, that censorship would be thinkable.”)* “I was interested in the mechanisms by which information, whether true or false, gets passed along and amplified,” Sunstein told me recently. “I wanted to know how extremists come to believe the warped things they believe, and, to a lesser extent, what might be done to interrupt their radicalization. But I suppose my writing wasn’t very clear.”

Sunstein has studied the spread of information since the mid-nineties, when he co-wrote a series of law-review articles about “cascade theory”—a model describing how opinions travel across juries, markets, and subcultures. He was particularly interested in what he called the Law of Group Polarization: how ideologically homogenous groups can become “breeding grounds for unjustified extremism, even fanaticism.” In 2001, his first book on political polarization on the Internet, “Republic.com,” warned that, even when people have access to a range of robust and challenging views, many will favor information that confirms what they already believe. He updated the book in 2007, as “Republic.com 2.0: Revenge of the Blogs,” and again this year, as “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.” When he wrote “Republic.com,” social media didn’t really exist; when he wrote “Republic.com 2.0,” social media’s impact was so negligible that he could essentially ignore it; in “#Republic,” he argues that services such as Facebook comprise the contemporary agora, and that their personalized algorithms will make it ever more difficult for Americans to understand their fellow-citizens.

In the endless debates about what constitutes “fake news,” we tend to invoke clear cases of unfounded rumor or outright deceit (“Melania has a body double,” or “President Trump saves two cats from drowning after Hurricane Harvey”). More prevalent, and more bewildering, are the ambiguous cases—a subtly altered photograph, an accurate but misleading statistic, a tendentious connection among disparate dots. Between the publication of “Republic.com 2.0” and “#Republic,” Sunstein became a target of the same online rumor mill he’d been studying from a distance, and many of the conspiracy theories about “Conspiracy Theories” fell into this gray area—overheated, but not wholly made up. “If you had told me that this obscure paper would ever become such a publicly visible and objectionable thing, I would have thought it more likely that Martians had just landed in Times Square,” Sunstein said. “In hindsight, though, I suppose it’s sort of appropriate that I got caught up in the mechanisms I was writing about.”