Firehosing and Pamphlet Wars

Four years ago we wrote a post here on “post-truth” to mark its growing importance in public debate. Today we explore some of the techniques that contribute to our post-truth society.

The “firehose of falsehood” is a technique in which a large number of messages are communicated rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels without regard to truth or consistency. The aim is to overwhelm and confuse an audience and little regard is paid to avoiding falsehoods.

The “firehose” takes full advantage of modern technology and exploits recent changes in the way people produce and consume news.

Firehosing can work alongside the “illusion of truth effect”. This effect describes people’s tendency to believe false information after they have been repeatedly exposed to it. A statement that is repeated is easier to process relative to new, unrepeated statements and this leads people to believe that the repeated statement is more truthful. The effect works because when people make these assessments they compare new information with what they already understand and are familiar with. Comparing the new information with what is already understood appears to have logic on its side but the test of familiarity is increasingly unreliable. Engineering mass familiarity with a lie is today a rather straightforward (excuse the pun) thing to do.

Sometimes firehosing can be used in association with a “Gish gallop”. This is a technique focused on overwhelming an opponent with as many arguments as possible, without regard for either the accuracy or strength of the arguments. 

During a Gish gallop, an opponent is rapidly presented with a series of many specious arguments, half-truths, and misrepresentations. The speed of delivery and quantity make it impossible for the opponent to refute them. In a formal debate, combating a Gish gallop is only likely when the chairperson is strong, committed to truth and fairness and all debaters respect their role. Informal debates, such as many recent TV debates, which are poorly chaired, are breeding grounds for the Gish gallop.

Something similar to a Gish gallop is often evidenced in political interviews when a journalist is overly deferential. Sir Robin Day is widely credited with pioneering an inquisitorial style of political interviewing that kept the Gish gallop in the stable. Day’s baton is today probably now in the hands of James O’Brien, Eddie Mair and Andrew Neil.

We have noticed several surprising similarities between the pamphlet wars that arose with the growth of printing and literacy, beginning in the 1600s, and today’s “social media inflammations”. Both appear to be seedbeds for forms of post-truth politics and the use of the available technology isn’t that different. 

Following the invention of the printing press, slanderous and vitriolic pamphlets were cheaply printed and widely disseminated, and the dissent that they fomented contributed to starting wars such as the English Civil War. Today we have again become used to the defining traits of post-truth politics: campaigners continuing to repeat their talking points, even when fact-checking media outlets, experts in the field in question, and others provide proof that contradicts them.  

Only the technology has changed.

Competency Based Interviews

Competency based interviews (sometimes called behavioural interviews) are now widely used in the humanitarian development sector. They are believed to be valuable because they give candidates the opportunity to talk about situations they have found themselves in, to outline their purpose, to describe briefly the action they took and to highlight the outcome. If this is done well they provide the needed evidence of their competence in action.

In essence, the value of these interviews is predicated on the idea that what has been demonstrated in action before, and suggests competence at work, is likely to point to capabilities that will be transferable to the prospective employer’s context and role.

Candidate modesty or humility are not assets when confronted with these types of interview. This can be a problem for the modest, humble or introverted candidate. It may even be that candidates who recognise that, even though they were leading the team, that team could not have achieved what was accomplished without the support and varied contributions of the team members.

There is also an ever present danger that some candidates may simply overstate their own contribution to the team’s achievements. If the selectors do not take this into consideration they may mistake high self confidence for high performance or low self confidence, in an interview, for low achievement at work.

Selectors can make use of reference requests that seek effectively to validate the competencies and achievements claimed but, in reality, reference checking has become almost a clerical or even an automated part of the selection process. Many organisations confine themselves to confirming roles held and dates of employment rather than assuring the veracity of competency claims.

So what can be done? 

A great deal of the responsibility for presenting an accurate and nuanced picture of capabilities in action lies in the hands of the candidate. If they are of an introverted disposition the competency based interview is, critically, the time to bring out their inner extroversion! They may benefit from some coaching with this to assure themselves that they are being honest to themselves. There are, additionally, other aspects of preparation for a competency based interview that will be of benefit:

  • Study the competencies or capabilities that the employing organisation say that they require.
  • Prepare a range of real life stories that showcase accomplishments and become aware of the particular skills in action that enabled you and your team to achieve what you did.
  • Think about how you contributed to the success achieved through delegation, orchestrating talents, managing resources, facilitating team interactions and careful planning.
  • Prepare carefully so that you can talk confidently about your contribution and the contribution of colleagues in a way that is thoroughly honest and that you are comfortable with.
  • Don’t forget to review what happened and make some notes on the learning that took place: your own and the team’s too.

Practice talking about your own strengths and abilities so that you are comfortable doing this. If you have a coach, ask that they provide some mock interview opportunities and provide you with some feedback on what they see and hear.

Begin to employ one of the well used frameworks for telling the stories of your past successes such as STAR. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. Answer the questions using this framework:

  • First, describe the Situation that existed prior to the action that you took. Make sure that you are balanced and honest in your assessment but don’t downplay your contribution to the assessment of the Situation either!
  • Then, prepare to talk about your goal or purpose: what was the Task that you set yourself or that someone else set you?
  • Third, explain what you did: the Action that you took, either directly or through other people. This is your opportunity to explain how you go about assessing team member’s capabilities, delegating work and multiplying their effectiveness through your on-the-job coaching. If these contributions “come naturally” to you, there is a real chance that you will overlook or even downplay their importance. Don’t do that!
  • Finally, you should describe the Result: what was the outcome and what did you and the team learn from the project?

In all of this it is to your advantage to listen very carefully to the question and to carefully make use of the key words that the interviewer used in their question, as you tell your story.

Practice this form of response with a coach or a friend and get them to give you some feedback. If you are to be interviewed virtually, online, then conduct these sessions using the same technology so that you get used to seeing yourself on screen and managing the technology well.

For more advice and guidance, especially if you want to work for a faith-based organisation, you may want to buy a copy of my book: “Careers in Faith-based Organisations” which is available here. There are sections on vacancy sources, consultancy opportunities, creating your CV or resume, education and training for the sector and how to use a ‘thank you’ email to consolidate your application.