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All Hail the Firehose of Bullshit
Russia Has a Lot to Learn from Legacy Media
You thought I was done with the disinformation articles? Haha, that’s hilarious. But today we’re going to be talking about institutionalized disinformation again, so I don’t have to bother you with obscure math that no normal person knows. That’s for part 3.
I want to start out by describing a popular sentiment that is somewhat correct. Skeptical news-watchers have begun to notice that on the vast majority of issues, the majority of legacy media outlets repeat the same lines, not just the same positions but the exact same phrasings, errors, narratives, and emotional valences. They change topics extremely quickly, with no sense of history or shame, sometimes taking the polar opposite of their previous positions. This is shown in almost every area. First to mind is COVID, where the shamelessness included whether the virus was a threat at all, masks were effective, school closures were destructive, hospitalizations were overreported, or the virus leaked from a lab. Under Bush, the same style of narrative revolved around 9/11 and wars in the Middle East.
In each of these examples, this was done to align facts with a pre-existing meta-narrative of institutional competence, even when no such competence existed. In traditional politics, this type of lying was frequent on all types of culture war issues, typically to push a political rather than institutional message. Due to this unmistakable pattern, trust in legacy media has plummeted among Republicans, whose values on average are opposite these meta-narratives, but also steadily declined among independents (more data points here).
As usual, I like to turn to a social explanation instead of a conspiratorial one (used here completely non-pejoratively). First, I’d like to give a disclaimer that media corruption and low-n conspiracies do exist. They don’t require the enormous, practically impossible coordination of mass racism or a stolen election, so they are not absurd on their face. The reason I don’t like insider coordination here isn’t that it’s useless as an explanation, but rather that I think the social effect is so well-documented and obvious that it’s even more powerful.
In network theory, there is a term initially coined to describe a form of Russian state propaganda, called the Firehose of Bullshit. It, alongside its similar cousin the Flood of Bullshit, works by throwing out large quantities of information with complete disregard to whether they are true, unknowable, uncertain, or obviously false. The textbook example is Malaysia flight 370. It vanished due to still unknown interference, but in the wake of its disappearance, Russian media put out a set of self-contradictory narratives, some of which were obviously false even from what they themselves had already reported, and others which were believable, but lacked hard evidence. The goal wasn’t to push one unified message, but just to create fear, uncertainty, and suspicion of the West.
If these two terms, flood and firehose, show up in the mainstream, they’re often used interchangeably. However, you would think there’s a reason for two terms existing and you would think right. In fact, the reasoning is very intuitive. A flood is completely uncontrolled. Water, or bullshit in this case, spreads everywhere in whatever direction it can. Meanwhile, a firehose is directed. It may be difficult to control and aim, but there is a general direction that a firehose is facing. Avid readers of Meta Politics will recall a passage from Richard Hanania, which I’ve quoted before and will quote again here:
There are two ways to lie in politics. Let’s say Side A wants to spend more on government, and Side B wants to spend less. Side A might exaggerate the benefits of investing in poor communities, and Side B might tell a story about how tax cuts for the rich will pay for themselves. This can be called directional lying, with each side trying to convince you of something, and this is how politics pretty much worked until the last few years.
Republicans, because they are tribal and not ideological, do not punish their politicians for non-directional lying, or simply making things up. I already mentioned the schizophrenic messaging about Biden and crime.
Liberals say really false things like “men can get pregnant,” “police are killing large numbers of innocent black men,” and “poor people are more likely to be fat because of food deserts.” Yet these are lies (or more usually, kinds of self-delusion) that you would expect from people who’ve adopted crazy ideological commitments
This difference is identical to the one between the firehose and flood strategies. As both of us have written, this distinction also frequently separates the wielders of institutions from the outsiders.
The key observation I want to introduce in this article is this: firehoses of bullshit naturally align with moral panics. Why? Moral panics are self-reinforcing firehoses of bullshit. As long as the pseudomoralistic fervor persists, there is social status to be gained from reinforcing, interpreting, and adding to the firehose of bullshit. A firehose in this form propagates with no insider coordination at all. Social climbers are attracted to moral panics like moths to a flame. Decentralized decisions are made in favor of the firehose. If it supports the approximate endpoints and emotional tenor which the firehose already has, a new argument can go viral immediately. Personal attacks against dissenters further distort public information, pushing the public in the same direction as the firehose.
Status is placed on synchronization. A phenomenon which Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler describe in their book The Elephant in the Brain is that consumers of news take and share it for the status of being up-to-date:
If exchanging information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers. Instead, we typically find ourselves with the opposite attitude: eager to speak at every opportunity. In fact, we often compete to have our voices heard, for example, by interrupting other speakers or raising our voices to talk over them. Even while we’re supposed to be listening, we’re frequently giving it a halfhearted effort while our brains scramble feverishly thinking of what to say next.
Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.
This dynamic is supercharged by the short cycles of virality on social media. Combined with the prior rewards, this creates a mechanism not only for reinforcing ideological or narrative conformity, but conformity of an exactness in language and delivery that past tyrants could only dream of.
Meanwhile, anyone who wishes to promote a firehose of bullshit in the modern day would almost certainly direct their efforts towards creating this type of environment if at all possible. It is repeated throughout history, from the original Catholic propaganda, to notorious regimes in history, like the Nazis or Soviets, to the present day, in places at home and abroad.
Moral panics also benefit incompetent midwits who cannot compete on the quality of information. It doesn’t take much skill to produce an endless stream of bullshit. Simultaneously, a greater environment of dogma and censorship drives away talents who have better things to do than be a propagandist, but might be competing for a straight news job. It might not be impossible to maintain both conformity and quality, as demonstrated by the Chinese government, but there is certainly a tradeoff. That’s why you see much wider adoption of either competence or conformity competition, but rarely both at a similar level. I’ve written on this relationship in the context of ideology, and it’s worth re-reading at least a summary:
Old institutions select for (and are mostly made up of) midwits.
Where there are midwits, ideological conformity spreads faster
Conformity makes everything in old institutions that selects midwits worse
Political change is downstream of the above three points
These changes in institutional selection also explain the lack of accountability for pseudo-journalists and bureaucrats who have promoted blatantly false and self-contradictory narratives. When an environment of moral certainty arises, questions of rigor and accountability vanish. Legacy institutions in particular are free to chase sensationalism with no cost for their factual errors. Firehoses of bullshit cannot tolerate quality.