This is the second of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.
Read the first chapter here.
Chapter 2: Dismantling a Wall of Lies
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.