Firehose of Falsehood

Russian web brigades

The firehose of falsehood is a propaganda technique in which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels (such as news and social media) without regard for truth or consistency.

Since 2014, when it was successfully used by Russia during its annexation of Crimea, this model has been adopted by other governments and political movements around the world.

The characteristics that distinguish this technique from Soviet Cold-War era propaganda techniques are a large number of messages and channels, and a ‘shameless’ approach to disseminating falsehoods and contradictory messages. The immediate aim is to entertain, confuse, and overwhelm the audience. The ‘firehose’ takes advantage of modern technology, such as the Internet and social media, and recent changes in the way people produce and consume news.

The high volume of messages and the use of multiple channels are effective because people are more likely to believe a story when it appears to have been reported by multiple sources. In addition to the recognizably Russian news source, ‘RT,’ for example, Russia disseminates propaganda using dozens of proxy websites whose connection to RT is ‘disguised or downplayed.’ People are also more likely to believe a story when they think many others believe it, especially if those others belong to a group with which they identify. Thus, an army of trolls can influence a person’s opinion by creating the false impression that a majority of that person’s neighbors support a given view.

Using the firehose model, according to American think tank RAND the Russian government has had some success in getting people to believe and spread falsehoods and disbelieve truthful reporting. The success of this approach flouts the conventional wisdom that communication is more persuasive when it is truthful, credible, and non-contradictory.

Although the ‘firehose’ takes advantage of modern technology, it is informed by the thinking of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, according to literary critic Michiko Kakutani. Lenin once explained that his heated language was ‘calculated not to convince, but to break up the ranks of the opponent, not to correct the mistake of the opponent, but to destroy him, to wipe his organization off the face of the earth.’ In his biography of Lenin, historian Victor Sebestyen described him as the ‘godfather’ of ‘post-truth politics.’ Steve Bannon, the former head of ‘Breitbart News,’ once described himself as a Leninist. Kakutani also cites Vladislav Surkov, a Russian businessman and propagandist. Surkov helped engineer Vladimir Putin’s rise to power by sowing chaos and confusion, and has suggested that the United States is also looking for a ‘strong hand’ to lift it from increasing chaos.

Russia has reportedly continued to use this propaganda technique in its dealings with Ukraine and Syria, against NATO allies, as part of its interference in the 2016 United States elections, and to interfere with elections in other countries. In November 2017, Russian state media published a number of stories claiming that coalition forces were purposely allowing Islamic State fighters to escape from Abu Kamal, Syria; the stories included a so-called ‘satellite image’ which was later found to be a screen capture from a video game. As recently as 2019, according to science writer William J. Broad of the New York Times, Russia began a ‘firehose of falsehood’ campaign to convince Americans that 5G phones were a health hazard, even as Putin was ordering the launch of 5G networks in Russia.

According to author and former military intelligence officer John Loftus, Iran has been using similar methods to incite hatred against Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel. He claims that some fake news attributed to Russia was actually planted in the Western press by Iran.

During Indonesia’s 2019 presidential race, incumbent Joko Widodo accused Prabowo Subianto’s campaign team of disseminating hateful propaganda aided by foreign consultants, citing “Russian propaganda” and the ‘firehose of falsehood’ model.

According to ‘Mother Jones’ editor Monika Bauerlein, the firehose technique is increasingly being used against the press by American politicians. She warns readers to expect an increase in the use of several related tactics: the lawsuit threat, the ‘fake news’ denial, and the ad hominem attack. Deepfake videos (fake videos enhanced by artificial intelligence) also poses a serious threat, according to Belgian journalist Tom Van de Weghe, who warns that ‘we’ve only seen the beginning of fake news.’

Traditional counterpropaganda efforts are ineffective against this technique. As researchers at RAND Corporation put it, ‘Don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth.’ They suggest: repeating the counterinformation; providing an alternative story to fill in the gaps created when false ‘facts’ are removed; forewarning people about propaganda, highlighting the ways propagandists manipulate public opinion; countering the effects of propaganda, rather than the propaganda itself (for example, to counter propaganda that undermines support for a cause, work to boost support for that cause rather than refuting the propaganda directly); turning off the flow by enlisting the aid of Internet service providers and social media services; and conducting electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.

Researchers at the German Marshall Fund suggest, among other things, being careful not to repeat or amplify the original false claim; repeating a false story, even to refute it, makes people more likely to believe it.

Another way to combat disinformation is to respond quickly as events unfold and be the first to tell the story. An example of this occurred in February 2018, when Syrian pro-regime forces began shelling Syrian Democratic Forces near Khasham and coalition forces responded in self-defense. The Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) immediately published a news release titled ‘Unprovoked attack by Syrian pro-regime forces prompts coalition defensive strikes.’ In response to the news, reporters from around the world flooded the CJTF–OIR with queries, which allowed CJTF–OIR to establish the facts before Russian news outlets could ‘spin’ the story.

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