In normal times, I’d never title a post like that, except as a joke. Yet these are not normal times.
You can see that based on how people changed the way they use Twitter.
I follow all sorts of people: screenwriters and speechwriters, librarians and literary agents, authors and architects. Twitter let’s me chat with folks from Iceland to India, and instead of talking about the things we love, like books and movies, most of the people I follow increasingly tweet about politics. Why? Because it’s not hyberbole to say that free democracies around the globe are under attack.
Creative people get that. They see what happens to reporters, writers and filmmakers when authoritarians subvert what used to be a democracy. They understand that liberties like freedom of the press can be taken away by the stroke of a pen and watch as police round up political leaders along with reporters who write stories the Dear Leader doesn’t like.
This list of five is mostly conservatives and national security / law enforcement folks. That’s for one simple reason: they have the strongest ethos on this issue.
It takes guts to walk away from your political home. Your career will suffer, even though you’re choosing country over party. I respect the hell out of that.
As for national security professionals and counter-intel folks, they know this fight better than anyone and have dedicated–and risked–their life to protecting all Americans, regardless of party, race, creed or color. My grandfather flew bombers in World War II and was a FDR Democrat, while my father’s a disabled Vietnam vet who votes Republican, but they both served the same flag and constitution. They swore the same oath to protect our country and constitution from enemies foreign or domestic.
Our democracy is under attack from enemies foreign and domestic, as are democracies in Europe and around the world. If you care about that, the people on this list are worth a listen.
This is the last of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.
Oppressive regimes react predictably to protests and opposition movements: they instinctively crack down on any dissent.
The methods used are brutal, but aren’t that surprising or creative. Non-violent resistance and smart messaging can make this instinct backfire on authoritarian rulers.
Step 28. Know their playbook
Protestors will be painted as paid thugs and traitors, with riot police blocking their movement. If protests continue, a regime may use tear gas, fire hoses and mass arrests—or simply outlaw mass protests altogether.
Judges and lawmakers who don’t go along with oppression will get marginalized, replaced or charged with bogus crimes.
Whistleblowers who leak documents to the press or opposition will be tracked down, if possible, and arrested and jailed.
Journalists who reveal the truth about the regime will be threatened, attacked or arrested.
Opposition figures who try to run against the ruler may be disqualified from the ballot or charged with bogus crimes.
If there are local and state police operating with local control, the regime will try to nationalize all police and law enforcement under their direct control.
To combat the manufactured threats generated by constant lies and a sustained propaganda campaign, the regime will seek greater powers, possibly via martial law or states of emergency, to combat these fake threats.
The true reason for this is to remove any checks and balances in the system, whether it’s the courts or lawmakers.
Law enforcement that used to go after criminals and spy agencies that focused on foreign threats will be redirected against lawmakers, judges, journalists and opposition leaders.
Insulting the ruler may become grounds to be sued for defamation or charged with a crime.
Censorship of the media, radio, television and internet will be justified as necessary to safeguard the nation against terrorism and foreign threats.
The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together.
Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen.
Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior.
Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.
Populism can survive only amid polarization.
It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.
—Andrés Miguel Rondón
Step 29. No singular leader or movement
If the opposition is united under a single banner with a singular leader, that makes it easy for the regime to focus all its firepower on that one opposition group and leader.
A single leader can be smeared, compromised, arrested or imprisoned. A united, national opposition group can be infiltrated, attacked with police raids and depleted by lawsuits.
Let the opposition grow organically and be leaderless, so there’s no one person or group as the regime’s target. Making the opposition leaderless also allows for the most flexibility and local control.
Everyone can feel like they can make a difference rather than being a cog in a machine.
Step 30. Protect whistleblowers, journalists and protest leaders
Peaceful protestors aren’t doing anything unethical or wrong. That won’t stop the regime from trying to use censorship and oppression.
Protect whistleblowers and journalists: Decades ago, authoritarian regimes kept tight control of copying machines because they knew a single copier could be used to spread the truth.
Today, it’s much, much harder to prevent average citizens—or patriotic government officials—from leaking documents revealing how the regime is corrupt and undemocratic.
Anyone with access to such information should carefully leak it to the free press and make sure, once the story breaks, that other copies are safely out of the hands of the regime.
Don’t trust encryption. Assume the regime can trace anything you do using a smart phone or computer. Instead, use couriers and dead drops.
Use go-betweens. Whistleblowers with access to information should not be one who leak that information directly to the press or opposition. Use a series of go-betweens to protect whistleblowers.
Make copy after copy. Regimes will try to censor or confiscate leaked material and anything embarrassing. Make multiple copies of important documents in different formats—digital, paper—and keep them safe in different locations.
Dead drops are a time-tested way to safely get documents and information to others.
Never have a face-to-face meeting to transfer sensitive information.
Put the document or thumb drive in an innocent, waterproof container and hide it in a public place, such as taped beneath a parking garage stairwell or beneath a shelf in a public library. Don’t tell anyone where the dead drop is until after the item is already there and the person who placed it is long gone.
Step 31. Use old-fashioned tools
Regimes will put opposition leaders, journalists and whistleblowers under surveillance.
These are some simple precautions to protect against this and to make the regime waste time and resources.
Don’t make it easy. If you suspect you’re being watched, don’t keep a regular schedule that lets a small team keep watch.
Keeping one person under surveillance takes a team. Doing work at odds hours of the evening means the regime has to add a night shift.
Meet with friends at restaurants or bars after midnight and they’ll need another team to work the graveyard shift.
No one-on-one meetings: Don’t meet one-on-one with important whistleblowers, journalists or opposition leaders. Talk with them, briefly, as part of a large group or event: a dinner party, a concert, a wedding or a soccer game.
Mix your real message in a sea of fakes. If something is truly important, send a flood of fake messages in different formats with different dates and details along with the one real message. Even if all these messages are in simple code, or no code at all, there’s no way for the regime to know the fake from the real.
Watch for infiltrators and instigators. Regimes will send undercover agents to known meetings of the opposition, to gather intelligence and to instigate possible violence to discredit the opposition.
Switch channels. To communicate securely with journalists or other opposition leaders, don’t use the same channel every time. Switch whenever possible.
Book codes. Digital encryption can be broken. If you need to send encrypted messages, book codes are unbreakable, no matter how many supercomputers are thrown at the problem.
Instead of codes referring to letters, a book code refers to the specific page, line and word of widely-available books.
To make it even more secure, continually switch the book used as the key to the code.
Adapt faster than the regime. Above all, continually adapt and change. Use the vast size and strength of a nation-state against the regime, which can’t innovate and adapt as fast as a loose collection of opposition groups.
Step 32. Find safe harbors
Some regimes have massive operations to block media sources from overseas and censor the internet, while others use jamming signals to block radio and television broadcasts from outside their borders.
Modern technology change has made form of censorship this much, much harder. But it’s not impossible. Some regimes employ a great number of people to censor the internet in their country, with various degrees of success.
What remains impossible for any regime, no matter how rich and powerful, is censoring censor newspapers and opposition leaders based entirely in other countries.
Journalists, whistleblowers and opposition leaders should therefore find and establish places which they can use as a safe places in other countries.
Use safe harbors to:
Talk to the media in countries where the regime has no leverage against the free press
Keep vital information and secrets safe
Spread leaks to the foreign press where the regime can’t apply pressure
Cultivate non-profits, friendly political leaders and ex-pats who can speak for the opposition
Step 33. Turn every target into a hero and symbol
Successful non-violent oppositions can turn each act of brutality and oppression into a chance to create a new hero.
Rosa Parks became an American icon for the simple act of refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus in the segregated South.
Srjdja Popovic’s brilliant book, Blueprint for Revolution, describes how in Serbia during the protests against Slobodan Milosevic, getting arrested turned people into famous symbols.
Protestors sang songs outside jails and chanted the names of those arrested. When protestors got released, they got rock-star receptions. Only those who got arrested 10 times earned a black Optor! opposition T-shirt, which became a token of respect and status.
Whoever the regime targets for threats, beatings or arrests, turn that person into a symbol of courage and resistance.
Share their stories, and tie it back to tales of people like Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafazia, Mahatma Gandhi, Guo Feixiong and Nelson Mandela.
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.
There’s a different battle happening behind the curtain. Oppressive regimes want the press and public to be distracted by manufactured fights, brazen lies and Fear of the Other while they wage a hidden war against independent institutions, personal freedoms and the rule of law.
This chapter is about that hidden fight and how to organize against it.
Step 15. An honest look at the landscape
It’s a myth that nations of today are static and unchangeable. During times of economic upheaval and war, solid democracies have slid to authoritarianism, while tyrants who seemed like invincible monoliths have fallen to the power of average people fighting to govern their own fates.
There are three basic forms of government:
Rule of the Many
Rule of the Few
Rule of the One
For thousands of years, Rule of the One was the default. Whether you called them king, queen or warlord, the essential idea was the same: absolute power concentrated in the hands of a single person.
Lies, propaganda and oppression are the tools of tyrants. While the technology may be new, kings and dictators used these strategies and tactics for thousands of years. Because if you control what people hear and see, you can control what they do.
Rule of the Few isn’t necessarily gentler, with modern autocracies often switching to this form long after kings and emperors fell out of fashion. Modern, mixed system can be just as oppressive as the absolute monarchies of old.
There are still countries where insulting the ruler can mean a prison sentence, where journalists who write critical stories are harassed, jailed or assassinated. And where opposition leaders who dare to treat elections as real contests face sham trials and stuffed ballot boxes.
Look at the chart and assess of where your nation stands:
Is there free speech or censorship? Do you have independent media or state-owned propaganda?
Are elections fair or rigged? Is the economy based on merit and competition or connections and corruption?
Do people have legal rights and liberties along with the rule of law or is the legal system beholden to the regime and the Rule of Man?
Step 16. Identify your audiences, then listen
The first rule of rhetoric is, “Who’s your audience?”
In democracies, it’s typical to think you only need 50.1 percent of the population to win. That’s only true when elections aren’t rigged.
With an oppressive regime, you must reach out to every possible audience, to make a clean break between the rulers at the top, their cronies and the other 99 percent of the population.
That’s because even if you’re fighting for truth, liberty and democracy, saying those words won’t truly resonate with a wide audience. Those ideas are lofty and don’t immediately connect with everyday life.
Listen to a wide swath of people—not just those who already agree with you—to find out what bothers them, what they fear and what want.
By their nature, oppressive regimes create strict rules that annoy the people they rule. Try to identify small, everyday annoyances faced by each major audience. Organize actions that target those symbolic fights that annoy each audience.
Blue-collar workers—This is the base of most autocratic regimes. They work hard just to pay the bills. Is the regime following through with their promises? Have things gotten better or worse—and what kind of dreams do they have for their children?
Business owners—Corruption doesn’t just happen at the highest levels. An oppressive government often requires average people and businesses pay extra to government officials every step of the process. Nobody enjoys being extorted like this.
Seniors—Seniors may remember personal freedoms they enjoyed, and fought for, decades ago. They might fear having their pensions and health care being slashed. Finally, they may worry about their children and grandchildren being abused and oppressed by the regime.
Kitchen table economics—Oppressive regimes are willing to hurt the overall economy to enrich themselves and their cronies. They don’t pay the price for this. You and your neighbors do. Corruption means artificially high prices and shortages of basic goods. It also means corporations with connections feel far more free to poison the environment or rip off their customers without fear of being held accountable.
Well-educated professionals—No modern society can function without engineers, professors, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. College students, professionals and skilled bureaucrats are likely to have travelled or studied abroad and tasted real freedom. Censorship, corruption and oppression will grate on them, no matter what their political views are.
Targets of the regime—Members of religious, ethnic or sexual minorities will face the worst smears and oppression.
The general public—Paranoia come with a price. Nobody likes the feeling that their email, phone calls and private conversations could be listened to by the secret police, or that they could be thrown in jail for something they said that offended rulers. And censorship is no fun. People today enjoy music, books, TV shows and movies from around the world, if not the internet itself.
Autocratic regimes will block or censor anything they see as a threat. Something as simple as leaving paperback copies of banned books in public places is a powerful symbol of rebellion and freedom.
Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.
Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.
They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.
They are patriotic in time of war because it is to their interest to be so, but in time of peace they follow power and the dollar wherever they may lead.
―Vice President Henry A. Wallace (1941-45)
Step 17. How persuasion works
Persuasion is tough and takes repeated personal contact.
You can get a message out with images, words or film. Truly changing somebody’s opinion requires listening to their fears and dreams, their ideas and questions, and talking through things over time.
There are three types of audiences:
And there are three stages to persuasion:
Change their mood
Change their mind
Get them to act
Use these concepts as tools for organizing and targeting your message.
Neutral audiences: This is the only situation where you go through all three steps of trying to change their mood, change their mind and get them to act.
Hostile audiences: It’s a victory to simply change their mood, so throw away the last two parts of the standard speech or message and consider it a victory to simply change their attitude and mood.
Don’t expect to flip audiences all the way from hostile to friendly. It’s a victory to move any audience one step.
Friendly audiences: Throw out the first two thirds of your standard speech or outreach effort. They already agree with you. Focus all of your time on figuring out ways to partner up and get things done.
Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence. …He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock.
He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. … Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.
Step 18. Match your message to your audience
Friendly audiences should be identified and recruited to get the work done.
Neutral audiences are people on the sidelines, not supporters of the regime but afraid of taking steps that might get them in trouble. Or they’re simply busy trying to pay their bills and survive.
With a neutral audience, you’re trying to move them to friendly.
They may not commit fully to the fight. Any sort of support, though, is better than sitting on the sidelines.
Hostile audiences include average who support the regime, police, soldiers, judges and bureaucrats carrying out the ruler’s orders.
No regime can survive if their base of support among the working class turns against them.
And even the most repressive ruler is powerless if the opposition convinces local police, judges and soldiers—your neighbors and friends—not to obey unjust orders to attack or imprison peaceful civilians.
The most powerful messages won’t come from friendly audiences, but from formerly neutral and hostile audiences who explained what changed their mind.
When you’re targeting audiences, think of that journey and how you’d want to be approached and persuaded.
It’s not with lectures or a flood of facts, but through listening first and using powerful narratives.
Step 19. Pick a simple symbol
If you don’t pick a symbol and do some branding work, the regime will brand you.
Successful political and opposition movements tend to pick a common object as a symbol that any person would grab from their home and use to show their support. In some countries, it’s been a color.
Common objects that became symbols include:
Umbrellas (Hong Kong)
Hats with cat ears (women’s marches worldwide)
Keep the symbol of the opposition simple, non-threatening and easily available to anyone.
Step 20. Organize on multiple fronts
Every oppressive regime has pillars of support that they rely upon, with some stronger than others.
Identify and organize on each of those fronts:
Defending and supporting the free press
Economic campaigns such as #grabyourwallet to put economic pressure on propaganda outlets, fake news and corrupt businesses supported by the regime
Pressuring your local, regional and national political leaders and officials
Supporting an independent court system with individual liberties and constitutional rights—the Rule of Law instead of the Rule of Man
Pushing for free and fair elections
Step 21. Force multipliers
You don’t need to have a background in journalism or rhetoric to understand and use simple, fundamental concepts of message.
Whoever attacks the status quo wins—Oppressive regimes try to win this debate by generating Fear of the Other. Reframe the debate by attacking the status quo and all the ways the regime makes life hard on everyday people.
Swing for the fences—The animal rights group PETA relies entirely on earned media. They take wild risks knowing that most of their public relations efforts will fail. Because it doesn’t matter. All it takes is one grand slam success to get massive media coverage.
Keep trying different things and don’t fear failure.
Repetition can create reality—One person saying the same thing three times is just as effective as three different people saying that same thing once.
Repetition is also key to getting your message to cut through all the noise.
Keep repeating simple messages. Over and over.
Be where your audience is—Decades ago, there were only a few major TV stations and radio networks in most countries.
Today, audiences are fragmented. Some people get their news only from the internet on their phone.
Others listen to the radio, watch cable TV news, only read newspapers or get their news from social media.
Dominating your favorite platform won’t win the day, no matter how skilled you are in that area.
Tyrants and would-be tyrants lure people into a debate about the past, which is politically weak.
They use a wall of lies to generate Fear of the Other, then try to capitalize on that manufactured fear by portraying themselves as the only thing strong enough to fight those threats.
The instinctive response of trying to fact-check and rebut these lies draws the press and public into a trap. Here’s why:
It’s impossible to rebut the sheer volume of lies.
Rebutting those lies requires repeating them and giving the press a conflict to write about, thus spreading the lies even more.
And finally, facts alone aren’t good at persuading people.
This chapter is about avoiding that trap and effectively countering a Wall of Lies.
Step 8. Focus on deeds, not words
Being caught in a brazen lie harms the reputation of a normal leader, so lies are mistakes to be avoided in modern democracies.
Authoritarian regimes don’t see lies as mistakes. They use lies as weapons of mass distraction. Instead of avoiding lies and being ashamed when they’re caught, tyrants create a Wall of Lies for use as a shield and a bludgeon.
The goal is to distract the press and opposition with lies as shiny objects while the regime is busy doing things they don’t want you to notice.
This is why authoritarians deploy a stream of headline-grabbing smears, shocking statements and personal attacks against any who dare oppose them.
You can’t keep up. Don’t see the wall of lies as individual facts to verify or debunk. View each lie as a clue to a regime’s intentions about who they’re targeting next.
If they’re lying about a religious minority, know they’re trying to generate support to target that minority next. Never take the bait and get stuck in a debate about the past. Instead, focus on the damage the regime is doing to real people, to individual freedom and to the country itself.
Three kinds of debates
Debates about the past deal in facts and assigning blame, often in a court of law. Debates about the past aren’t powerful in the political sense, because most people have a particular frame. If they hear new facts that are contrary to their frame, they don’t reject their long-held beliefs—they reject those new facts.
Debates about the present are about values, decisions you can’t make by weighing evidence or comparing numbers. Debates about values are generally used when talking about social issues. Values are important, but values alone won’t persuade.
Debates about the future are about risks versus reward, hopes versus fears. These are the most powerful political debates and impossible to fact-check, because the future is always in the distance.
Step 9. Let the media and fact-checkers handle lies
The natural reaction to outright lies is for the opposition to cry foul and correct the record.
Doing so, however, is shockingly ineffective. It takes a great deal of time and energy for the press or opposition to debunk a single lie. Meanwhile, it costs an undemocratic ruler mere seconds to generate a pile of new untruths.
Even if you “win” the debate about one of these lies, you haven’t really won a thing except the chance to waste your time.
An opposition can’t get trapped trying to debunk this sea of lies. Average people and the political opposition can’t become consumed with this task.
Leave the job of correcting lies to those with the credibility and resources to do it: fact checkers and the free press, including media based outside the country where the regime has no leverage.
Instead of referring to individual lies, focus on the regime’s credibility as a whole. Point to the long history of lie after lie as proof that you have no reason to believe the regime will tell the truth about anything at all. Ever.
While the press and fact-checkers do their job, do your job: spreading the message that it doesn’t have to be this way. That instead of lies, propaganda and oppression, the people could be free.
That message should focus on the future, because a fight about the fast—about facts—is inherently weak for political purposes.
A debate about the future is the political high ground. Stay there.
Step 10. Never play defense
The targets of lies or a smear campaign shouldn’t spend their energies debating the facts and defending themselves. Taking this bait means you accept the autocrat’s preferred narrative: Are you guilty of these attacks or not?
A person or group defending itself does so from a weakened ethos—credibility—because they have a self-interest in that debate.
Anyone being attacked or smeared by the autocrat should let a third-party defend them.
An independent source has a stronger ethos, since they don’t have any self-interest in the matter.
While others defend you or your group, stick to your message. Know you’re only being attacked because your message is working.
Step 11. Mock policies instead of personalities
The campaign of lies and propaganda meant to boost the image of the autocrat—to make him look strong—are often countered with mockery from the opposition and the media.
Autocrats tend to be bigger than life and easy to mock. Yet mockery is not a magic bullet.
Throughout history, authoritarian leaders were often seen as clowns or jokes who’d never had a chance of holding power. Mockery didn’t stop them from gaining power, and attacks on their personality won’t drive them from power.
Economics professor Luigi Zingales points to the example of billionaire and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who won elections when opponents focused on his bombastic personality and many scandals. Trust me, you don’t want to know what “bunga bunga” parties are.
It’s only when opponents attacked Berlusconi on the issues—policies instead of personality—that they kicked him out of office.
Mocking policies instead of personalities is also smart as a long-term strategy, because every tyrant will eventually pass on and be replaced by a successor using the exact same power base, tactics and policies.
Step 12. Turn the strength of tyrants into weakness
You have to do this literally. Relentlessly.
Without getting distracted by the stream of brazen lies, manufactured conflicts and distractions.
Authoritarians can win the message war by distracting and trap the opposition into debating about facts—a debate about the past— while they’re busy exploiting fear about the future and rigging the system to grab more power and wealth.
To win, you need to convert supporters of the regime into opponents.
When confronted by facts that don’t fit their narrative frame, they won’t reject the autocrat’s dominant frame and story—they’ll reject the facts.
The only way to win is to provide a different political narrative. A story that explains what causes problems and how you fix them.
No matter what issue is being debated, put it in the same frame: the ruler is a cheater who rigs the system because he’s too weak and cowardly to win a fair fight.
Instead of being the savior of the nation, the autocrat is the cause of problems.
The solution is to restore the rule of law and strong individual rights instead of a police state with all power resting in the hands of the few or the one.
Here are sample frames to change the narrative:
THE WAR ON TRUTH—The ruler rigs the system with lies, censorship and propaganda because he’s are too weak and cowardly to win a fair debate. Our country won’t be truly free until we have free speech, a free press and the right to protest without being arrested.
ELECTIONS— The ruler is a cheater who rigs elections because he’s too weak and cowardly to win a fair election. We won’t be a free country until we have free and fair elections.
LAW AND ORDER—The ruler cheats and rigs the police, intelligence agencies and courts because he’s too weak and cowardly to win according to our constitution. It’s not about making us safe—it’s about making him safe. Protecting the people will only happen with police and judges who obey the law instead of a single man who’s above the law.
THE ECONOMY—He’s a cheater who rigs the economy for himself and his cronies because he’d rather cheat and game the system than work hard for his money like you and I have to. He’ll plunder the country until we restore fair competition and we reward hard work and merit, not corruption and kickbacks.
Step 13. How stories can fight Fear of the Other
Autocrats use a twisted, extreme form of populism, giving angry masses a simple and powerful attack on the status quo.
That attack is a political narrative, a story that explains what causes problems and how you solve them. It’s based on fear and lies yet quite effective.
In this false narrative, the source of all problems are traced back to the Other—typically immigrants, minorities, intellectuals and foreigners—and since the nation is under attack, the solution is a strong leader to protect the people.
An autocrat will continually refresh and expand the list of Others to keep the population sufficiently afraid and compliant.
The secondary targets of undemocratic rulers are any individual or institution who they see as a threat to absolute power. These targets include journalists, judges, lawmakers, opposition leaders and protestors.
If there is no real foreign threat, autocrats will often invent threats through lies and propaganda—or by ginning up conflicts with other countries, especially smaller, weaker nations they can bully.
Fear of the Other works because it’s visceral, primal and a debate about the future. You can’t fight this fear with facts, numbers or arguments.
The best way is through sharing stories about real people and building bridges, because Fear of the Other is really a fear of the unknown. In the end, the regime is trying to dehumanize classes of people while turning them into scapegoats.
Fight back with stories about real people.
Find and spread stories about real people from targeted groups who proudly serve as soldiers, police officers, teachers, doctors or nurses. Share photos or video of these people with their extended families—from infants to great-grandmothers—to dispel the lie that they’re somehow inhuman or a threat to the nation.
The most powerful stories show people from completely different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities meeting and becoming friends.
The most effective responses to attacks on Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues in North America have been leaders of other faiths rallying to help.
Step 14. Build bridges
There are good lessons from the debate on marriage equality in the United States and other nations.
One of the most effective tools that changed minds wasn’t a slick slogan or an advertising campaign.
What helped turn the tide were gay and lesbian people brave enough to come out to their friends, co-workers and family.
Because once most people had an aunt, son or neighbor who was gay or lesbian, Fear of the Other faded and attitudes quickly changed.
It’s impossible to dehumanize entire groups of people when everybody knows members of that targeted group.
Another key message is the story of transformation, with somebody who used to fear a persecuted group and believe the regime’s lies sharing how they changed their mind. It’s a story about building bridges, one person at a time.
The good news is this is something that every person can do.
Whatever group is being smeared and persecuted, the best way to resist is to reach out and build bridges.
Not with people who already agree with you, but with people who support the regime and may have never met people they’re being asked to hate.
Those new friendships happen at the local level.
And there’s nothing a regime can do to stop people from sharing coffee, chatting during their kids’ soccer game or sharing a meal in their own home.