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.
Each week on Wednesday, I’ll post another chapter.
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 email@example.com
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:
- Religious leaders
- 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.