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The Russian Firehose of Falsehood

September 1, 2016

I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of publications on Russian propaganda/soft power/deception etc but I’d recommend the newish RAND paper by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews on The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.

They characterise this by four features

1. High volume across multiple channels

2 Fast, continuous and repetitive

3. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘truth’ and

4. Neither is it interested in consistency.

They also connect each of these four elements with discussions in the psychological literature  It’s the third and fourth of these that draw particular attention since they go against what might be thought of as the conventional wisdom on propaganda contests (and in political communications) that consistency and credibility are important.

Their conclusions and recommendations are also important – particularly in the context of discussions of ‘post-truth politics’.  They are sceptical that efforts at rebuttal can work against the volume and speed of the Russian attack as they put it “don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth” – emphasis in original.  While some degree of rebuttal is required they place more weight on forewarning people about the existence of the Russian information effort.  Here what I called the propaganda panic probably serves a role in flagging the presence of the effort.  They also emphasize the importance of focusing on blocking the achievement of the objectives of Russian activities, for instance if the Russian objective is to undermine NATO solidarity focus on supporting the factors that consolidate this rather than on rebutting falsehoods.  There are other types of asymmetric responses that can be used such as full enforcement of broadcasting rules.

Although Paul and Mathews look for explanations of the lack of concern over truth and consistency in the psychological literature an alternative explanation might come from the changing media environment.  In the era of the Second World War or The Cold War information is in relatively speaking in short supply so a piece of news gets raked over and its credibility assessed, the result is the kind of personalized propaganda duel discussed here where recognized individuals get drawn into personalized tests of credibility ‘X said that y would happen.  It didn’t. Why should you believe anything else they say?’  Where there’s a continuous stream of information individual statements don’t get subject to the same average level of attention – for most people they just get replaced by another tweet – after all as McLuhan argued media is an environment.

It’s also worth noting that in a Second World War style duel(you also probably find this in exchanges between Arab radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s)  the protagonists confronted each other directly with the intention of damaging each other.  This is something that under normal circumstances diplomats are reluctant to do or that modern international broadcasters do.

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