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.
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.
Across the world, a wave of authoritarian regimes is using lies, propaganda and oppression to attack the foundations of liberty and democracy.
This goes beyond politics. My father is a Vietnam vet and strong conservative; my grandfather was a World War II bomber pilot and FDR Democrat, and I’m a former journalist turned progressive speechwriter. Yet we’d all fight for the same bedrock values:
freedom of speech and of the press;
the Rule of Law instead of the Rule of Man;
a Constitution and Bill of Rights to protect the people; and
free and fair elections.
Regardless of your political beliefs, those values are the heart of the free world that’s served us so well since the end of World War II.
So this isn’t about politics or elections. It’s is a much bigger fight about whether laws and institutions should be designed to protect the people—or protect the ruler.
And this battle isn’t new. Kings, queens, warlords and dictators have used the same tactics for centuries. Instead of competing in the marketplace of ideas, authoritarians rely on lies and propaganda to generate Fear of the Other.
Instead of competing in fair elections, they rig the system, and the economy, for their personal benefit.
Yet if you google “how to fight propaganda,” it’s shocking how little turns up.
The same thing is true for tips on fighting lies and oppression.
There’s nothing really out there aside from the pamphlet INDIVISIBLE, which is great if you live in a democracy and want to influence a lawmaker in a swing district. It’s simply not designed to give you tips on dismantling a wall of lies, battling a sea of propaganda or fighting back against oppression. In too many nations in the world, the legislature is a rubber stamp, a thin veneer of democracy rather than a possible avenue of change and reform.
Freedom House has taken on this cause and they’ve done a meticulous great job of tracking and reporting each year. Here’s their map on freedom of the press, worldwide. Click on the map to read their latest report.
And this is their map dividing the world into Free, Partly Free and Not Free.
Bit sobering, isn’t it? There’s an awful lot of yellow and blue on both of those maps.
Below you’ll find the first of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.
The guide borrows from journalism, rhetoric and public relations. It’s meant to be useful whatever continent you live on, whether you’re reading it today or 50 years from now.
It will always be free.
P.S. Since this blog has readers who are journalists, speechwriters, editors, writers and people with much larger brains than mine, I’ll happily take your suggestions when it’s time to revise the PDF. Please send ideas, comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Chapter 1: Marching Toward Liberty
A march is the basic form of protest and has been for thousands of years.
Marches are still incredibly useful for any political movement, especially if you’re resisting lies, propaganda and oppression.
A single march can do what tyrants fear most:
Organize the people
Spread a message of truth, equality and democracy
End with an action, and
Set the stage for bigger marches and events.
This chapter is about maximizing any march, because history shows even a single march can be the seed of a national movement.
Step 1. Why tyrants fear protest marches
However invincible a regime appears, it will crumble without the compliance of average people. Even the harshest dictator doesn’t patrol the streets and do his own dirty work.
Nation-states require police officers, judges, soldiers, administrators—and modern economies require truck drivers, nurses, engineers and construction workers.
This is why authoritarian regimes do all they can to make you afraid, isolated, quiet and compliant.
Protests in the streets show that people are brave, unified, loud and resistant.
Riot police can handle a crowd of two hundred. They can bring in trucks and arrest everyone. Police can’t arrest a crowd of ten thousand protestors.
They have no way of dealing with 100,000 non-violent marchers. And there aren’t enough police, courts and prison cells to arrest and lock up tens of millions of people peacefully marching.
Even if a regime tried to do this, they’d go bankrupt trying to build enough prisons and hire enough prison guards. The economy would sputter and die without all those workers, while the regime would look silly arresting peaceful grandmothers and kids.
This is why tyrants fear peaceful protests more than anything else.
So you march. Loudly and peacefully.
And you do not comply.
Step 2. Non-violence is your greatest weapon
An opposition movement must embrace non-violence, not just in protest marches, but throughout every action it takes.
That’s because the first instinct of a regime is to brutally crack down on any signs of rebellion while portraying protestors as paid, violent thugs.
Opposition groups, big or small, have to continually preach and practice non-violence, and renounce any violent protest as being outside the movement.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow Freedom Marchers knew they’d be greeted with the blows of police batons, the spray of fire hoses and the bites of police dogs. They went out in the streets anyway to expose the ugly truth about Segregation.
Peaceful protest is also more effective than a violent uprising. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth studied major non-violent and violent uprisings since 1900. Violent uprisings succeeded 26 percent of the time and tended to lead to another tyrannical regime.
Researchers used to say that no government could survive if just 5 percent of the population rose up against it. Our data shows the number may be lower than that.
No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population. But get this: every single campaign that exceeded that 3.5 percent point was a nonviolent one. The nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns.
Chenoweth found that non-violent resistance succeeded 53 percent of the time and tended to lead to greater democracy.
Step 3. Publicize a protest long before it happens
The more time you provide for logistics, publicity and planning, the better. Don’t wait until the day before. Start weeks before—the longer, the better.
Many protests and marches are held on weekends, because that’s when people have free time. The trouble with weekends is there aren’t many reporters working Saturdays and Sundays..
Advance notice is therefore key, especially for TV crews. A newspaper reporter can grab a notebook and camera and head out. A TV reporter needs a camera person and a satellite van, so station producers plan in advance. And you want television coverage whenever possible.
To maximize press coverage before the march, gather a list of names, emails and phone numbers of your local media. Then write down the following in this format, which is the Five W’s of journalism:
WHO: Who is expected to attend and speak at the march? Who is organizing it? And finally, who can the press contact for more information? List multiple organizers, because you should reply right away to any press request. Reporters are always on deadline and will contact different people until they get what they need.
WHAT: What exactly is happening? Think like a reporter about events worth photos or coverage.
WHEN: Start time and end time.
WHERE: Starting point and ending point.
WHY: Why are you marching? This is best done through a quote from an organizer.
Use this raw material, those Five W’s, to spread your message.
Announce the event: Send an email with those exact things, in that format, to the local press with the subject line of the email announcing the event.
Share it on social media: Post that same information on social media and ask people to share with their friends and RSVP so you can get a rough headcount. Figure out a hashtag for the movement and event.
Turn it into letters to the editor: Get every organizer and ally who’s coming to the march to rewrite those Five W’s into letters to the editor. Have them say, in their own words, why they’re attending the peaceful march and why others should, too..
Talk to the press: Reporters doing announcement stories want more than the Five W’s.
Ideally, journalists want a great personal story about one of the organizers or speakers at the march. The best stories are the ones that surprise and bring audiences on an emotional journey.Find those stories and connect people with journalists before the event.
Step 4. Use the march to organize and message
Now that every smart phone can take photos and video, then send those images around the world, every march and event is an opportunity to spread your message on multiple platforms.
This is critical because regimes use lies and propaganda as part of a sophisticated, multi-media attack.
Combatting this assault on truth and liberty requires images, video, songs and stories.
Every step of the way, ask your fellow organizers and the crowd to post photos or video using the same hashtag.
Photos of the growing crowd: As the march starts, get people to take photos of the growing crowd. Post photos and video to social media to encourage those sitting on the fence to show up.
Video of every speaker: Shoot film—on smart phones, camcorders or better—during and after the march.
Stories: Set up stations, which can be as simple as a poster that says, “Tell Your Story Here,” and send roving volunteers to do the same around the crowd. Stories about real people are the most powerful form of messaging and communication.
Music and song: It’s not a party without music. Many people belonged to marching bands in school or college. Encourage people to bring their drums or guitars to entertain people. Shoot film of people dancing or singing protest songs.
Turn the march into an organizing tool: A simple clipboard can turn into an email list or phone tree. On that same clipboard, ask people what skills they have and what issues they’d like to work on.
Creative protest signs and costumes: Take photos of the best and funniest ones. Give people credit.
Announce the next event and other actions: In the warm-up speeches before the march starts, announce the next march or event.
Tell people other actions they can take, like writing letters to the editor, showing up at a lawmaker’s town hall meeting or emailing advertisers to boycott radio shows and blogs spewing fake news and hate.
Repeat these announcements at the end of the march, so you don’t lose momentum by having to track down and inform people after it’s over.
Step 5. Don’t just say you’re peaceful—show it
If the regime can portray protesters as angry and violent, they win. Oppressive regimes want photos and film of protests turned ugly.
They want red-faced people spitting on police, college students wearing black trashing cars and protestors looting shops.
This is why protest marches should be peaceful and joyful, with music and laughter. You want it to be completely clear that the march is a peaceful, happy event. A party people want to join.
For safety reasons, don’t block highways or do anything that could make a march dangerous to bystanders, drivers, police or fellow protestors.
Organize volunteers wearing something visible—hats or armbands—to keep the peace and offer bottles of water or first aid.
To emphasize how committed the opposition is to non-violence, put people who are obviously not threats in the front of any march:
Grandmother and grandfathers
Retired veterans wearing their uniforms
Step 6. Reach out to the local police
No regime can survive without the support and obedience of local police.
Police have kids who go to the same schools as your kids or grandkids. They shop at the same grocery stores. These are your neighbors, whether you know their names or not.
So learn their names.
Before the march, reach out to the local police to make sure they know exactly what you’re planning.
Ask them for their advice on making it peaceful and safe, because you don’t plan on giving them any trouble whatsoever. And because they’ll know the logistics of a march, big or small. Your local police will know the safest routes you should march.
While the crowd gathers and organizers give speeches, tell the crowd that the local police aren’t the enemy. Explain how the regime really wants to portray protestors as paid thugs who smash windows and throw rocks at the police.
Remind everyone that your movement embraces non-violence in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
During the march, smile and reach out to the police. Call them by the names on their uniforms and ask where they’re from.
Thank them for coming out to make the march safe. Give them flowers—or coffee and pastries.
If you see this happening, take a photo or video. Because news is the most interesting when it’s a surprise. People expect protesters to treat the police as an enemy to be met with suspicion, fear and flying bottles. You’ll make news by doing the opposite.
After the march, get to know the police in your neighborhood. Don’t lecture them—listen. Having coffee and donuts with your local police may sound like a joke. But it’s not.
Everyday police officers are a core pillar of any authoritarian regime. Without their support, the regime crumbles.
Step 7. End with action
If you end a march with nothing, that’s anti-climactic. That’s why most marches begin with warm-up speeches and end with their best speakers.
Surprise people by ending your march not just with a great speech, but with a non-violent action.
Sit-ins are effective, especially to publicize a lawmaker or elected official who refuses to meet with the people they’re supposed to serve.
It’s relatively easy for police to hustle off people who are standing up. It takes multiple police officers to pick up and carry each protestor staging a sit-in.
People around the world have also created variations on the protest march in respond to regime tactics like refusing to issue protest permits or blocking protest routes.
A silent, standing protest doesn’t have to march anywhere and is a powerful and unusual statement.
Street theater is a useful and creative outlet. Stage a short play or skit in a public place.
Picket lines, strikes and boycotts are effective in leveraging economic pressure for reform and justice.
Every oppressive regime is also a kleptocracy. Rulers, their families and cronies get rich through corruption, and major businesses must pay to play. Put pressure on key businesses that support the regime with picket lines, strikes and boycotts.
For a comprehensive list of 198 non-violent methods and actions, read Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Non-Violent Action.
Bring your brooms
At the end of any protest march or event, leave the place cleaner than you found it.
Nothing steps on your message more than photos of piles of trash.
End every event by cleaning up not just the protest area itself, but nearby places, whether it’s a shopping mall, a park or a neighborhood.
Brooms are also a potent symbol of cleanliness vs dirty corruption. This is a simple, strong way to show that your movement is positive and constructive instead of threatening.
It’s hard to fight against this imagery .
A regime would look ridiculous if it tried to outlaw brooms or arrested groups of peaceful people cleaning up public streets and parks.
Who doesn’t like volunteers with brooms and trash bags, cleaning up local parks and streets?
This is also an opportunity for outreach. People will see you cleaning up outside their home or business and ask who you’re with and why you’re doing it.
This is far more effective as a conversation starter than knocking on their door and trying to talk to about your movement.
By cleaning up, you’re showing people with deeds instead of words. You’re also creating curiosity, which is the first step to engaging an audience.
Next week—Chapter 2: Dismantling a Wall of Lies
To download the full guide as a PDF, click here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org