Over the last few years as head of this foundation, I and others on our team have received some spectacular emails from folks claiming we were part of a government coverup about UFOs, part of a “Big Pharma” conspiracy to keep the truth about new alternative medicine cancer cures hidden from the public, that we are all CIA operatives engaged in misinformation about the truth about psychic combatants, etc. etc. But we recently received an impressive new accusation. Someone emailed about his concerns that JREF leadership is coordinating a deliberate effort to weaken the 911 Truth movement, engaging in what Cass Sunstein has called “cognitive infiltration.”
Here is the longish email in its entirety:
Greetings JREF Leadership
I am emailing about some concerns I have uncovered that you may want to examine for yourselves. I have been tasked to "kick the hornet's nest" on social media websites in hopes of identifying links and activity patterns between various accounts. This has resulted in some rather alarming initial results. I am unaware of the exact means of data collection, only the variables being scrutinized. They include: account usage vs. dormant times, video comments and commentary placement(IE: liking, disliking), video uploading activity, channel commentary, subscribing, etc. All of this information is public knowledge, one can go to all accounts and clearly observe recent time stamped activities. I just want to be clear that the information I will summarize for you has been collected using a simple public information data mining program.
Consider this a 'shot over the bow'. Without giving you specific information, I can alert you to the patterns that lead to this email. There is an obvious link and disturbing pattern between 20-30 YouTube accounts. You could claim the pattern exists for a legitimate reason. We are all professional skeptics, so know it is impossible to convince you that anything is a certainty. However, if adding observed details and my, professionally valid version of critical thinking, most of these scrutinized accounts have proven links to the JREF forum or JREF members.
You could say that makes sense because you encourage the activity of debunking conspiracy, and these accounts are very active in the 911Truth arena. The disturbing portion is the pattern and precision of commentary placement. A review of the data reveals a 'team-like' approach to keeping comments made by active team members in high profile locations on each targeted video page. When/if you see the raw data analysis, to deny the precision of the patterns, is to deny basic math.
This leads to some questions you might seek to answer within your organization. This email will increase your lead time if you wish to investigate this possibility yourselves. Obviously, you have no control over what members of your organization chose to do as individuals. But, if this pattern of precise activity is being sponsored or encouraged by JREF leadership, you could end up with some big problems down the road.
"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 will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity." Cass Sunstein
Would you be concerned if your organization was a potential hub for such cognitive infiltration? If this is sponsored government activity, could these members undermine the future of your organization? For all I know, you encourage and are proud of JREF's success in this area? As stated, I just stir the pot and look at the accelerated activity numbers, I'm admittedly uninformed on JREF's ultimate purpose. That's why you are getting your shot over the bow right away.
The skeptic in me knows if this is a JREF sponsored agenda, you aren't going to tell me anyway! So I guess all this email can do is make you aware of what has been observed and documented. If you discover a suspect group within JREF and need advice on solving the problem, I can only provide an experienced opinion. If the list of account ID's is critical for an internal investigation of your own, I could request that information be provided to you.
Wouldn't you prefer to fix this quietly with an "intel arbitration" versus a potentially damaging public situation? We are all allies of free and open debate. I am not your enemy. Unfortunately, it maybe time to use your skepticism and think critically about a possible JREF conspiracy. My, what a strange world this is…
“Too close a connection will be self-defeating if it is exposed.” Cass Sunstein
Thank You and Best of Luck
Here is my quick response:
Dear Robert Hanson:
Our focus at the foundation is mostly on pseudoscience and the paranormal. While this does occasionally result in some folks imagining a conspiracy between JREF and "Big Pharma" and the like, this is a first that we have been suspected of conspiring with the government to coordinate online opposition to the 911 Truth movement.
I've read through your email and I want to assure you that there is no coordinated activity to organize comments on YouTube nor any other website. Also, you should know that participants in the free online discussion forum hosted at randi.org are not necessarily members of the James Randi Educational Foundation (indeed, there is a very inconsiderable overlap between the two groups).
There is no government-sponsored activity at the JREF related to denial of or reaction to any of the 911 Truth community or posts on any website. The JREF is not involved in nor does it coordinate any "cognitive infiltration" of any online groups or movements.
You are seeing connections that aren't there, a problem I think may be common in the 911 Truth world.
My email elicited this response:
You should have left out the last sentence sir. Now I will be certain you sink in public spotlight! Buh bye....
Do not speak down to me you half-wit mind controlling little c*nt! I know goddamn well what is going on there and gave you the chance to fix it yourself!
You work for me
To which I responded:
Please refrain from further insulting emails.
And, to repeat, the JREF is not involved in any "cognitive infiltration" and does not work in connection with nor on the behalf of any governmental body or individual; indeed, various governmental agencies are often the target of our skeptical work in the public interest, such as regards the use of taxpayer dollars to buy fake dowsing rods as bomb detectors (the ADE 561 and the like).
In my fifteen years working in skeptic education and secularist advocacy, it is a first to be called a "mind-controlling little c*nt." Because of such invective, I will not be responding to further emails by you.
Why am I sharing this exchange? I think it illustrates three important things about skeptics dealing with the unduly credulous.
First, what started off as a moderate back and forth about false beliefs (that the JREF is involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the 911 Truth Movement) quickly turned into offensive insults, as is often the case in such exchanges.
Second, that no amount of new information is enough to convince some folks — despite my denial that JREF is not part of a government agenda of “cognitive infiltration” of the 911 Truth Movement, the correspondent will continue to believe otherwise; further emails he sent suggest that he feels absolutely certain that I am subservient to my government “bosses,” and that I am just engaging in “skeptic bullshit artist[ry]” and that my work for the supposed 911 governmental cover-up has finally been “found out.”
Third, this exchange and further emails reveal how someone holding a view different from this man’s is turned into more than just someone who is merely wrong, but into someone who is an great enemy, and my disagreement with him ceases being about ideas and instead about how he feels personally attacked by the disagreement: I was called “Trotsky anarchist,” and “arrogant little prick,” and asked: “You think you can get a grip in my mind?” and informed that he “could cram the skeptical minds of every person [I] have talked to about this, inside [his] brain stem,” which I will assume that he means he is a man of great intelligence, something I can’t confirm nor deny, since I don’t know the man aside from a few emails.
So, for the record again, the JREF is not part of a coordinated 911 Cover Up, nor any online effort to infiltrate the 911 Truth Movement. It is true that on the internet discussion forum we host at randi.org there are a number of popular threads on the “911 Truth” topic. But the people involved in such online discussions contribute completely independently of the JREF; indeed, JREF staff are able to participate in such discussions infrequently because of the time-constraints nonprofit professionals often face.
I am really proud of the repository of skeptic research and discussion on a wide array of important topics made by JREF Forum members over the years, but to imagine that it is some top-down coordinated effort is to connect dots that aren’t there. This is exactly what happens with conspiracy theories, along with so much other sloppy thinking: people take real information (that people discuss 911 conspiracy theories on our forum, that someone heard a scary noise or saw a light in the sky) and use their big brains to imagine connections that simply do not exist (that the JREF is part of a government cover-up agenda, that the noise was a ghost, that the light was a UFO).
While such email exchanges with conspiracy theorists and other unduly credulous can sometimes reveal a lot about the power of committed belief in the absence of good evidence, they might also suggest that sometimes even responding may not be worth it at all. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below.
D.J. Grothe is President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and host of the podcast For Good Reason.