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.
Power is not a means, it is an end.
One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.