Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

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.


Next week—Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at

Chapter 3: The Hidden Fight

This is the third of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Read the first chapter here and the second chapter here.

Chapter 3: The Hidden Fight

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:

  1. Rule of the Many
  2. Rule of the Few
  3. 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:

  1. Hostile
  2. Neutral
  3. Friendly

And there are three stages to persuasion:

  1. Change their mood
  2. Change their mind
  3. 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.

—Andrew Sullivan

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:

  • Brooms (India)
  • 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.

Simple beats complicated—The simplest narrative wins. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

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.

To reach every audience, be where they are.


Next week—Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at