Russia's “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model
<aside> 💡 Distinctive Features of the Contemporary Model for Russian Propaganda
It may come as little surprise that the psychology literature supports the persuasive potential of high-volume, diverse channels and sources, along with rapidity and repetition. These aspects of Russian propaganda make intuitive sense. One would expect any influence effort to enjoy greater success if it is backed by a willingness to invest in additional volume and channels and if its architects find ways to increase the frequency and responsiveness of messages. This next characteristic, however, flies in the face of intuition and conventional wisdom, which can be paraphrased as “The truth always wins.”
Contemporary Russian propaganda makes little or no commitment to the truth. This is not to say that all of it is false. Quite the contrary: It often contains a significant fraction of the truth. Sometimes, however, events reported in Russian propaganda are wholly manufactured, like the 2014 social media campaign to create panic about an explosion and chemical plume in St. Mary's Parish, Louisiana, that never happened.15 Russian propaganda has relied on manufactured evidence—often photographic. Some of these images are easily exposed as fake due to poor photo editing, such as discrepancies of scale, or the availability of the original (pre-altered) image.16 Russian propagandists have been caught hiring actors to portray victims of manufactured atrocities or crimes for news reports (as was the case when Viktoria Schmidt pretended to have been attacked by Syrian refugees in Germany for Russian's Zvezda TV network), or faking on-scene news reporting (as shown in a leaked video in which “reporter” Maria Katasonova is revealed to be in a darkened room with explosion sounds playing in the background rather than on a battlefield in Donetsk when a light is switched on during the recording).17
Contemporary Russian propaganda makes little or no commitment to the truth. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that the truth always wins.
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In addition to manufacturing information, Russian propagandists often manufacture sources. Russian news channels, such as RT and Sputnik News, are more like a blend of infotainment and disinformation than fact-checked journalism, though their formats intentionally take the appearance of proper news programs. Russian news channels and other forms of media also misquote credible sources or cite a more credible source as the origin of a selected falsehood. For example, RT stated that blogger Brown Moses (a staunch critic of Syria's Assad regime whose real name is Eliot Higgins) had provided analysis of footage suggesting that chemical weapon attacks on August 21, 2013, had been perpetrated by Syrian rebels. In fact, Higgins's analysis concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks and that the footage had been faked to shift the blame.18 Similarly, several scholars and journalists, including Edward Lucas, Luke Harding, and Don Jensen, have reported that books that they did not write—and containing views clearly contrary to their own—had been published in Russian under their names. “The Kremlin's spin machine wants to portray Russia as a besieged fortress surrounded by malevolent outsiders,” said Lucas of his misattributed volume, How the West Lost to Putin.19
Why might this disinformation be effective? First, people are often cognitively lazy. Due to information overload (especially on the Internet), they use a number of different heuristics and shortcuts to determine whether new information is trustworthy.20 Second, people are often poor at discriminating true information from false information—or remembering that they have done so previously. The following are a few examples from the literature: