Nov 08 2019

How to Combat Firehosing

According to a recent Guardian article:

It’s (“firehosing”) a relatively new term coined by Rand researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews in 2016 to describe the propaganda tactics Russian authorities use to quell dissent and control the political landscape.

They report that the strategy has metastasized from political propaganda to science denial campaigns, such as the anti-vaccine movement. The skeptical world has known about this strategy for decades. We typically refer to this as the “Gish Gallop.” The context is slightly different, however – a Gish Gallop usually refers to a single encounter, such as a debate, in which one side vomits forth a large amount of BS and misinformation knowing the other side will never have the time to deal with it all. This strategy can work because it takes a lot more time to deconstruct each misconception or falsehood than it does to create it.

Firehosing is very similar, but can refer to a strategy of massive misinformation over time and in multiple venues. This is especially relevant in the age of social media. The underlying strategy is identical – overwhelm the other side with large volumes of low grade information, even blatant lies and claims that have already been definitively debunked. Some form of this strategy is so common, dealing with it is a frequent topic of skeptical discussion.

I find there are two roots to firehosing (I’ll use this term to refer to the general phenomenon). The first is more innocent, in that I don’t think it is a conscious strategy. Rather, the person engaging in firehosing is themselves a victim of a misinformation campaign. They have read or heard many bits of information, and find the sheer volume compelling. They fall for the fallacy of, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” No – in reality where there is smoke there may be fire, but there also may be someone blowing a lot of smoke, or maybe there is just fog. You will encounter a lot of pithy references to this in skeptical writing. “The plural of anecdote is not data.” “No matter how high you pile up cow pies they don’t turn into gold. You just have a huge pile of BS.”

The relatively innocent firehoser is just naive, and perhaps intellectually lazy. They accept the volume of evidence offered without evaluating any single piece in detail, and without considering alternative explanations. Essentially theirs is a sincere failure of critical thinking. But this end of the spectrum also blends into the more sinister end, where firehosing is used as a deliberate propaganda strategy.

At this end the firehoser knows what they are doing. They are not intellectually lazy, they are intellectually dishonest. They know they are spouting falsehoods, or are indifferent to their truth status. The purpose of their communication is not to persuade, but to confuse and befuddle, even to distract. Go ahead, deal with all these lies. I can pile them on endlessly. While you’re busy doing that, I will make my emotional and ideological appeals. I will build a compelling narrative, and you will lose before you even realize you are playing the wrong game.

It’s diabolical, and unfortunately it works. But it’s even worse than that. It works similarly to a virus that takes out the immune system of the host. The Guardian puts it well when they write that of the greater purpose:

It’s to rob facts of their power. Firehosing inundates us with so many wild opinions that it becomes exhausting to continually disprove them. In this scenario, reality is reduced to positioning and who can sell their position best.

We can see this strategy at work. In American politics it seems the overall strategy recently is to just manufacture your alternate reality, the actual facts and logic be damned. Both sides may think they have the real facts, and the other side is hopelessly misinformed. (I always have to point out, I am not suggesting symmetry here, but both sides certainly believe this.) There is no engaging honestly with a common set of shared facts.

This has been the case for much longer with science denial campaigns. It doesn’t matter how many times you debunk creationist or anti-vaccine arguments or show that their facts are straight-up wrong – proponents will continue to use them. So what can we do?

There is no one simple solution, but understanding the phenomenon is a critical first step. With regard to the Gish Gallop, skeptics have learned to do a few things. First, don’t debate in an open forum where there are no rules. In a formal debate, insist upon moderation that will control what topics are discussed and basically not allow the Gish Gallop. In informal settings, I often condition further discussion on focusing on a specific fact or claim. Let’s deal with this one issue before bringing up other ones. This is often challenging, as the pressure to Gish Gallop may be huge, and proponents of pseudoscience get uncomfortable when forced to defend something that is clearly wrong in detail. Their usual strategy is to shift to another point as soon as they lose one, and the counter strategy is to simply not let them do that.

Also, it’s critical to call out the firehosing strategy. You have to, in essence, meta-argue. Don’t let them set the framework and control the flow of the discussion, because they will use it (consciously or not) to firehose.

For the semi-innocent firehoser who is essentially firehosing by proxy (because they are just regurgitating what they heard), I often say – pick the fact or argument you find most compelling. Let’s do a deep dive on that until we are both satisfied, and we’ll see if it’s true or not. If it turns out to be false, would you agree this calls into question everything else your source claims? At the very least, I have no reason to trust any of the other claims you are throwing at me. Keep knocking them down, one-by-one, until you made your point.

On a societal level we have to engage in similar strategies. This means exposing and calling out firehosing as an intellectually dishonest strategy of propaganda. It needs to become a meme in its own right, so that the public is generally aware of it as a phenomenon and won’t so quickly fall for it.

But also we need to control the venue, meaning that the information ecosystem needs to account for firehosing as a common abuse and take steps to prevent it. Journalists and editors are probably the first line of defense here. They need to understand this strategy so that they don’t get exploited to further it. They should shut it down, and not give it the attention it seeks. Don’t fall for the “false balance” fallacy, which is used as an opening for firehosing. Don’t get distracted by the mountain of information, which does not mean that you don’t fact-check and correct misinformation. Rather, don’t just fact-check. Try to automate the fact-checking as much as possible so it is available as a reference, but don’t waste your headlines and news space playing the firehosing game. That is what they want.

Focus on calling out their intellectual dishonesty, their deliberate propaganda, and focus on establishing the true story you are discussing. You can reference a separate document that details all the false claims.

Unfortunately, the propagandists can just imitate this process. They are good at that too – just reflect any accusation back at the accuser. Mimic the form and style of critical thinking and skepticism and try to turn it around on the skeptics.

That’s why, as is always the case, there is no substitute for teaching actual critical thinking, for good quality journalism, and for scientific literacy. There is no procedural fix for a gullible populace.

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