I was the leader of a revolutionary student movement that sought to unseat Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic — a movement that, in 2000, was growing day by day as Milosevic’s nationalism carried the country on an ever more destructive path. One warm spring day, during a government press conference on state TV, three senior ministers appeared on the screen and announced the existence of a “high-level CIA conspiracy to overthrow Milosevic by using well-paid student activists.” They meant me and my organization, OTPOR. My phone rang. It was my girlfriend. She laughed and said, “My foreign mercenary! I wonder when that fat check from Langley is coming, so you can finally take me skiing?”
Labeling his opponents puppets of a foreign conspiracy became a mainstay of Milosevic’s propaganda. We were described as “seduced students,” pawns of Western powers. Later, when I became an advisor to non-violent revolutionary movements across the world, I would frequently see similar conspiracy theories used by other authoritarian regimes against pro-democracy activists.
In Georgia and Ukraine, the “color revolutions” were dismissed as foreign plots. In Turkey, President Erdogan’s closest advisor accused foreign mercenaries of inciting the protests in Gezi Park. In Russia, protesters and anti-corruption activists are called “CIA shills,” or more ambiguously, “foreign agents.” In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and his successor, President Maduro, see foreign conspiracies everywhere. And in Hungary, Viktor Orban claims that NGOs who point out the deficiencies of his rule are subversives from abroad. The reason so many dictators use such tactics because they believe they work — but pro-democracy movements need not despair. There are ways to fight back.
This “foreign conspiracy” narrative is not simply a denial of facts — it’s a deliberate political strategy with specific goals. First and foremost, disobedience is defined as an “import.” According to dictators, dissent is always the work of a foreign agency whose ultimate goal is to impose Western values and destabilize the country. These foreign agents bribe impressionable and otherwise loyal citizens to execute their dirty work, turning them into puppets susceptible to manipulation and seduced by the promise of money.
This has the function of painting the opposition as inherently unpatriotic. Obedience is thus defined as the norm, while disobedience and dissent become deviant, anti-social behaviors. This creates a distance between the opposition and the larger population by slandering dissenters as extremists, even as terrorists, that share nothing in common with ordinary people.
Such tactics condition people to distrust democratic action — or any kind of activism at all — creating an apathetic and cynical society in which corrupt authoritarians thrive. By blaming any and all dissent on foreigners, the regime convinces people that they have no right to question its actions. Furthermore, inventing a foreign adversary distracts people from domestic issues, further securing the regime’s stability. After all, the threat of a foreign invasion is much more frightening than high unemployment or corruption.
The conspiracy narrative often falls on fertile ground. In authoritarian regimes, where there is little access to information and where the authorities really do operate in cloak and dagger ways, people often gravitate towards conspiracy thinking in the first place. Even more insidiously, this narrative contains a seductive psychological trick: if everything is a conspiracy, if the individual has no agency, then all one’s personal failures can be excused. Even for clever people, it seems that conspiracies are weirdly comforting.
But despite the best efforts of authoritarian governments, democratic activists are not powerless against this false narrative.
Since the regime wants its propaganda to spread, the best way to fight back is not to waste time trying to seriously debunk it — this only raises it to a level of respectability. Instead, it’s better to mock it. In Serbia, in the days and weeks after the Milosevic regime accused our movement of being Western stooges, thousands of Serbian students wore T-shirts saying “Touch me — I’m a foreign mercenary” and badges saying “I kiss for free — I betray the country only for dollars.” During the 2011 anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt, protesters gathered in front of the KFC in Tahrir Square and made videos openly mocking the regime’s claims that they had been enticed by money and free fast food.
In 2012, after people in the small Russian town of Barnaul were banned from holding a public protest, put toys on the public square instead, forcing local authorities to ban toys from protesting “because they are not citizens of Russia.” In Thailand, in 2014, the regime became suspicious of a possible foreign-engineered uprising inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster “The Hunger Games,” and pushed theatres to cancel the movie’s premiere. Just like the rebels in the movie, protesters quickly adopted a defiant three-finger salute as their movement’s symbol. Mocking a conspiracy is the best way to show it up for the desperate narrative trick it actually is.
It’s even more important to focus attention on the reality the regime wants people to forget, thus underscoring that its propaganda is nothing more than an attempt to distract the population from its failures. For instance, in 2015, Russian activists decided to express their frustration about poor quality roads by graffitiing caricatures of local politicians around potholes. Next to the faces, they quoted these politicians’ own promises and propaganda, in which they had pledged to have the roads repaired. Such stunts expose the government’s hypocrisy and the light years of distance between its promised “paradise” and the everyday reality. Tellingly, rather than fixing the potholes, the local government focused on washing off the graffiti.
An even cleverer approach is to turn the regime’s paranoid narrative on itself and promote a better, alternative narrative for your country’s future. This is what we did in Serbia. Milosevic’s conspiracy-riddled narrative argued that being “patriotic” means, in effect, hating Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians (not to mention the West). In effect, it meant isolationism. We argued that true patriotism was the reverse: striving for peace with our neighbors, integration with Europe, and respect from the international community.
During this time, I kept wondering whether Milosevic really believed that my comrades from OTPOR — the 70,000 young, educated people who opposed him — were just marionettes of the West. After his fall, I found the answer when reading through the 187 pages of secret police files his regime had amassed on us. The officers of the State Security Agency really had been looking for what they termed an “OTPOR analytical center,” a sort of grand HQ, which they were convinced lay in Washington DC.
In reality, we ran OTPOR from the living room of our parents’ apartment in the center of Belgrade and from the official OTPOR office on the city’s main street. Basic evidence-gathering and snooping would have been enough to convince the secret services about the extent of our operation. But empirical research is useless when the leader has a paranoid, conspiratorial worldview and directs his secret services to produce “evidence” that fits his warped reality. Milosevic had been misled by his own propaganda.
This conformation bias could be the most dangerous part of the conspiracy narrative. Imagine the consequences when this process takes place on a far larger scale. Imagine President Putin, trapped in his own conspiracy narrative, really believing that enemies all around him are trying to grab Russian land through a “fifth column” and engineering revolutions in the “near abroad” — all to attack him personally. This logic would lead the Kremlin into the mindset of a new Cold War, moving its military to its Western borders and sparking conflicts in Europe and beyond.
To combat this dangerous scenario, which rapidly seems to be becoming a reality, democratic governments need to apply some of the street-level lessons activists have learned to the arena of geo-strategy and public diplomacy. Don’t be intimidated and stand up for your cause — but also don’t let yourself be dragged into endlessly trying to debunk the dictator’s fantasies. Instead, focus on developing an alternative vision that would enable a country like Serbia or Russia to flourish by treating its civil society as a legitimate partner, developing positive relationships with its neighbors, and joining the international community.
This article is part of the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” project. The institute also hosted an interview with the author and a panel discussion, featuring him and other experts, about whether conspiracy theories are a threat to democracy.
In the photo, students and teachers parade under an OTPOR flag in Belgrade in October 2000.
Photo credit: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images