Beyond the Headlines: RAND's Christopher Paul Discusses the Russian 'Firehose of Falsehood'


Dec 13, 2016

Activists dressed as the artist Vincent van Gogh hold signs that say, "Don't listen to Russian propaganda," outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, February 5, 2016

Activists dressed as the artist Vincent van Gogh hold signs that say, "Don't listen to Russian propaganda," outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, February 5, 2016

Photo by Gleb Garanich/Reuters

As part of RAND's ongoing “Beyond the Headlines” series, researcher Christopher Paul discussed his recent study on the Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” propaganda model on Dec. 7 at the research organization's Pittsburgh office. A massive, ingenious, and concerning campaign of propaganda has been pumping westward for years, supporting the Russian agenda in Ukraine and Syria and likely attempting to influence the recent U.S. presidential election, said Paul, a senior social scientist at RAND.

According to Paul, the new propaganda model—a modern, media-savvy twist on Soviet-era propaganda methods—is distinguished by four characteristics:

  1. High volume (hence the term “firehose”), using a wide range of modes and media, from news-media facsimiles like RT (formerly Russia Today), an English-language cable network; to proxy fake-news outlets and armies of paid trolls (provocateurs paid to start arguments, hurl insults, denigrate counterarguments, and pollute discussions on social media and other internet forums).
  2. Rapidity and continuousness, spreading virally via myriad channels around the clock.
  3. Falsehood, or as Paul put it, “no commitment to objective reality.” Reports sometimes contain a kernel of truth, a distortion of reality, a garnish of actual news—or just complete fiction, doctored photos, and staged events.
  4. No commitment to consistency, though that may seem counterintuitive in relation to conventional wisdom about persuasion. Within themes useful to Russian interests, propagandists may throw up a chaff cloud of alternative explanations, questions, theories, and accusations to simply obfuscate, cause distraction, and see which rumors about a real event can gain traction (which occurred after the 2015 downing of the Malaysian Air passenger jet, MH17, over Ukraine).

While this extensive disinformation apparatus is primarily aimed at the domestic Russian audience, it is also employed against the West, including reported efforts to interfere in the recent U.S. presidential campaign. What Russians may have hoped to accomplish by meddling is unclear. The goal may not have been to boost one candidate over another but just to “create a little mayhem,” Paul said, by seeking to undermine U.S. democracy, or create a closer, more contested, and less legitimate election.

“The question that drove our research,” Paul said, was “Why does this work?” It's intuitive to assume that “credibility is king. But no—volume is associated with persuasiveness,” the researcher said. It's not always the quality of information, but the sheer quantity that equates to believability, and the source. “The most persuasive thing—always, anywhere—is to hear something from someone like you,” he said.

The Russian disinformation pipeline exploits both of those tools, and it delivers its stream first, another important advantage, Paul noted. “Once you hear something and accept it, it's really hard to change your mind,” he said.

If most sources of information deserve skepticism and distrust, the few trustworthy ones that remain are likely to be discounted, too.

Paul suggested the Russians were playing a long game focused more on sowing confusion, distrust, division, and discontent among adversaries than on any immediate economic gain for Russia. He summarized the objective by inverting the adage about a rising tide lifting all boats. “A falling tide sinks all boats,” he said. If most sources of information available deserve to be treated with skepticism and distrust, he pointed out, the few trustworthy sources that remain are likely to be discounted, too.

Although election campaigns are often muddied with smear and spin, foreign operatives potentially trying to influence American elections deserves a strong and clear response.

How can the United States counter this kind of campaign, when responding in kind (by spreading disinformation) or barring access to compromised communication channels (censorship) would violate American values? “It's really tough for us,” Paul conceded, “because we're the 'freedom of information' society.” The U.S. government and the State Department have an obligation to rebut fiction with fact, though that won't solve the problem, he said.

“Don't try to fight the firehose of falsehood with the squirtgun of truth,” Paul said. “Try to put 'raincoats' on those who will be hit with the firehose.” In other words, it may be possible to inoculate against propaganda by getting good information out in advance of disinformation.

Sowing confusion can be a prelude to strong action. “The playing space has changed,” Paul said. “We've got to defend the rules.”

— Samantha Bennett