This is the fourth of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.
Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth
An authoritarian regime uses lies and propaganda are used not only to generate far and smear opponents, but to distract the press and public from their larger strategy: consolidating power and accumulating wealth.
The main front of the War on Truth is an attack on independent sources of information and truth, primarily the free press, to prevent that corruption from being uncovered.
A second front is propaganda, fake news and misinformation.
Step 22. Support and protect the free press
A free, independent press is crucial to shining a light on corruption and oppression. Only the independent press has the credibility to perform this role.
If opposition lawmakers or protest groups discover corruption and try to inform the people about it, their ethos—their credibility—is weak, because they’re obviously biased.
The free press is the only real institution with the credibility to shine a light on corruption, oppression and injustice. That’s why authoritarian regimes relentlessly attack the press with smears, lawsuits and violence.
Fight back against any attempts to pass laws that crack down on freedom of the press and freedom of speech, including laws making it easier to sue the press for libel. Also watch for new laws that punish journalists for refusing to reveal sources, such as government whistleblowers.
Support independent newspapers acting as a check on the regime by subscribing to key newspapers and media outlets, advertising with them and getting friends and allies to do the same.
When individual reporters are attacked—in public, on social media or with lawsuits and arrests—rally to their defense.
Make smears backfire by treating every attacked reporter as a national hero. If a regime tries to stage police raids on newspapers or TV stations, blockade the entrances, hold sit-ins and do what you can to make those raids painful and publicized.
Step 23. Attack the heart of propaganda outlets
Anonymity is the beating heart of propaganda.
Unlike journalism, propaganda hides both who’s writing and producing their material and who’s paying for it all.
Attack the heart of propaganda by depriving it of that shield of anonymity.
Unmask the writers and creators of propaganda. Shame is a powerful tool, and the last thing the people who make their living writing and producing this material is for their friends and neighbors to know what they really do for a living.
More importantly, find the funding sources. If the regime itself is entirely funding a propaganda operation, use that to discredit all that they say.
When propaganda is coming from a media outlet with any sort of advertising funding, start a #grabyourwallet campaign to boycott businesses that advertise on propaganda outlets until they remove their support.
The rulers of backsliding democracies resent an independent press, but cannot extinguish it. They may curb the media’s appetite for critical stories by intimidating unfriendly journalists, as President Jacob Zuma and members of his party have done in South Africa.
Mostly, however, modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist. All reporting serves an agenda.
There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power.
By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters.
― David Frum
Step 24. Ignore fake news and faceless trolls
Kings, emperors and dictators used rumors and whisper campaigns against journalists, judges and the political opposition.
Modern technology has simply shifted those techniques to the digital realm.
Nation-states have the resources to design and deploy elaborate misinformation campaigns:
- Fake news stories and websites
- Doctored documents and photos
- Armies of faceless trolls on the internet
- Manipulated video and audio
Debunking this flood of fake news and smear attacks is a waste of time.
You can’t refute lies and smears without repeating them in some fashion, spreading them wider.
The only real strategy to deal with trolls is to starve them of the attention they seek. Never engage, no matter how hard they try to provoke you.
Step 25. Turn propaganda against itself
Instead of words, propaganda relies on images, photos, audio, posters film and music.
Propaganda tends to crop up during wartime, even in free democracies, then disappear in peacetime.
What authoritarians do is maintain a permanent campaign of propaganda during war or peace. If you glance at war propaganda posters, this becomes immediately clear: the enemy is depicted not as human beings, but as rats and monsters.
Propaganda is also used to boost the ruler’s perceived strength. It’s no accident authoritarian regimes puts portraits of the ruler everywhere you look, making them seem omnipresent.
A final role of propaganda is to rally the population behind the ruler while portraying any sort of opposition or protest as treasonous.
Don’t give in to the notion that fighting back means using the same techniques as the regime. Spreading your own lies, propaganda and misinformation isn’t smart because it undermines the credibility of the opposition. You’d sacrifice the moral high ground.
And you can’t win by mirroring the regime’s tactics, because this will never be a fair fight.
No opposition can ever match the money and resources of an entire nation-state. It’s like a heavyweight boxer taking on random civilians on the street, including young children and grandmothers. While cheating.
Any battle against propaganda has to be fought with asymmetrical guerilla tactics. Turn the overwhelming presence of propaganda against itself. Take all the time, money and effort the regime spends on posters, slogans and messages and subvert them in creative ways.
Portraits of the ruler posted everywhere are targets for rebellion and mockery. All it takes is a marker and some creativity.
Videos and songs meant to rally the people behind manufactured enemies, and behind the ruler, are easy to satirize by anyone with a laptop and time. Even if the regime tries to censor such videos and songs on the internet, they can’t stop marchers from singing the same words.
Finally, don’t focus satire the subverts the regime’s propaganda on the foibles of ruler, because rulers don’t last forever, while their ideology and methods will continue unless they’re stopped.
Aim mockery at the actual policies of the regime.
Step 26. Send the right messengers
Talking, marching and organizing with people who already agree with you may feel good, and can help the opposition get organized. Staying in that bubble can’t win the day.
Any successful fight against the War on Truth has to focus its persuasive efforts on reaching and persuading supporters of the regime.
Authoritarians gain and sustain power through extreme populism. They appeal to the working class while painting educated professionals as the enemy. By contrast, the natural base of any opposition movement is typically educated and urban.
The working class base of support for an authoritarian regime is typically afraid because they’re struggling economically and desperately want change. They don’t trust the educated elite to give them the change they want.
Listen to supporters of the regime first, and understand their fears, before trying to persuade them with the right message and local messengers.
A powerful message—The opposition’s narrative has to be just as simple and emotional as the regime’s story of a nation united against dangerous enemies.
A real political message is more than a slogan. It’s a narrative that explains what causes problems in society, how you solve those problems and what an ideal society would look like.
Facts won’t defeat the regime’s powerful, fear-based message.
You need a counter-narrative that explains what causes problems in society (corruption, lies and oppression), how problems are solved (clean, honest government, freedom of speech and fair elections) and what an ideal society looks (a safe, open society where people can be free and prosperous).
Local messengers—Whoever shares the opposition narrative should be from the same demographics and region as the audience you’re trying to reach.
Don’t send anyone who looks or sounds like a member of the educated elite to working class neighborhoods, because they’ll be seen a politician who can’t understand their daily life.
Cultivate fresh voices who get their hands dirty doing the same jobs, every day, as the people you’re trying to reach.
Those new voices, no matter how effective, shouldn’t parachute in and out of places.
Opposition voices and leaders should be found and supported locally, in the very places where the regime’s support is the strongest.
Step 27. Weave stories into everything
Plato feared stories more than anything else.
More than logic. More than facts.
Stories are how we naturally process information. It’s the most powerful form of communication.
Narratives come in many forms, and there’s an art to doing them on a high level. But you’re not trying to write novels or screenplays for a living.
You can, and should, structure whatever you do in terms of a simple, strong narrative.
The biggest difference between narrative stories and the stories you see in newspapers is structure.
Journalism typically uses the inverted pyramid, which is a fancy way of saying “put the exciting bit in the headline and first paragraph, then make it more boring until it peters out at the end.”
There are good reasons for newspapers to use this structure, because it gives people the most important information first and lets editors cut the end of a story if they ran out of room on a page.
This journalistic style of writing is pretty typical for public relations, especially press releases.
Yet it’s terrible for the purposes of persuasive writing and communication, which is what you’re doing as an opposition movement.
Instead, use a narrative structure for everything you do. Everything: speeches, letters to the editor, videos, protest songs and even posters.
The basics of narrative are simple.
Villains, heroes and stakes: Every story is a conflict between villains and heroes. The villains are the most important part of a story. What if the villain wins? Show what’s at stake for the people in the story and for the greater public.
Curiosity and surprise—Narratives are strong because they’re the opposite of the inverted pyramid. They make you curious, build up that tension and only reveal the answers at the absolute end of the piece.
Maximum emotional distance—The best stories, speeches, books and movies maximize the emotional distance the audience travels.
If the ending is up (happy, excited), the beginning should be down. If the ending is down (sad, upset), the beginning should be up.
Never write flat. If the story you tell is down the entire time, or up the entire time, there’s no velocity to what you’re doing. The audience is lost.
Think of a roller coaster. That’s the kind of structure you want, with emotional velocity.
Concrete imagery—Don’t tell people something is wrong or unjust. Talk about real people, about what they saw, touched and heard. Make it real.
End with stories of action—Subtext is more powerful than text. It’s never persuasive to beat people over the head with your message. That’s a lecture.
Instead of telling people to act, find ways to end every speech and message with an example of a person who stood up, spoke up and took action. Inspire them to action.