By Brian Martin
A practical handbook and model for activists to be more effective when facing injustice and powerful, dangerous opponents. The backfire model is a framework for understanding tactics used by perpetrators of injustice and how to oppose them.
In 1991, protesters in Dili, East Timor were massacred by Indonesian troops. This turned out to be a political disaster for the Indonesian government, greatly increasing international support for the East Timorese independence struggle. The massacre backfired on the Indonesian government. The Backfire Manual explains why.
Imagine you’re planning an action and think you might come under attack. Maybe it’s a rally and there’s a risk of police brutality. Maybe you’re exposing government corruption and there could be reprisals against your group. To be prepared, you need to understand the tactics likely to be used by your opponent, for example covering up the action and trying to discredit you and your group.
The Backfire Manual provides guidance for this sort of planning. It outlines the backfire model and gives examples and exercises for using it. This is a practical handbook for being more effective whenever you face a powerful, dangerous opponent.
Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of numerous books and articles on nonviolent action and is vice president of Whistleblowers Australia.
The Backfire Model
Attacks sometimes backfire. They are counterproductive for the attackers. In fact, they are so disastrous for the attackers that they wish they had never done anything.
- In 1991, Los Angeles police beat a motorist named Rodney King, who had been speeding to avoid arrest. After a video of the beating was broadcast on television, viewers were outraged and public support for the police dropped. The beating backfired on the police.
- In the 1990s, McDonald’s sued two anarchists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, over their leaflet “What’s wrong with McDonald’s?” The legal action was widely seen as unfair and led to a huge campaign in support of Steel and Morris. It was a public relations disaster for McDonald’s. Suing Steel and Morris backfired on McDonald’s.
- In 2004, media reported on torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. The graphic photos showed US prison guards grinning as they humiliated and tortured the prisoners. Publication of the photos severely damaged the reputation of the US government, especially in the Middle East. The torture backfired on the US military.
- In 1991, thousands of people joined a funeral procession in Dili, East Timor, using the occasion to peacefully protest against the Indonesian occupation. As the procession entered Santa Cruz cemetery, Indonesian troops suddenly opened fire, killing hundreds of people. Western journalists were present and recorded the massacre. Their testimony and video evidence triggered a huge increase in international support for the East Timorese liberation movement and laid the basis for independence a decade later. The massacre of peaceful protesters backfired on the Indonesian government.
Each of these cases involves an injustice: police brutality, censorship, torture, massacre. In each case those mounting an attack — the police, McDonald’s, US prison guards, Indonesian troops — caused damage to their target. But in each case the attack ultimately backfired, causing much greater damage to the attacker and its allies.
Backfires can be immensely valuable in aiding efforts against injustice. The trouble is, most attacks do not backfire. Most police beatings receive little or no publicity. Most legal actions for defamation are hardly known. Most torture is done in secret. Even massacres, which are harder to hide, may generate comparatively little concern.
What is going on? Why do some attacks backfire and not others?
The backfire model is a way of analysing attacks. It highlights actions taken by each side to reduce or increase outrage from a perceived injustice. The model is not intended to tell people what to do. Activists know a lot about the local situation and are in the best position to make a judgement about options. The model is a general tool that points to the sorts of things that are likely to happen or that could happen. It can help activists to choose more wisely.
The backfire model, like any model, is a tool. It doesn’t guarantee success. Imagine an army that has the best possible strategy. That’s helpful, but if the army has few troops, is poorly trained and has outdated weapons, it’s unlikely to succeed even with a brilliant strategy. Likewise, the backfire model can help activists develop better strategies, but this isn’t a guarantee for success. It is simply one element in a much wider process.
Backfire: The basics
When a powerful group does something unjust, it can take action to reduce popular outrage. In 1960, there were protests across South Africa against the racist pass laws. In Sharpeville, police opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing perhaps a hundred people. The police and government tried to reduce outrage, but even so the massacre severely damaged the South African government’s international reputation.
Five methods for reducing outrage over injustice
- Cover up the action.
- Devalue the target.
- Reinterpret what happened by lying, minimising, blaming and framing.
- Use official channels to give an appearance of justice.
- Intimidate or reward people involved.
Torture is universally condemned, so when governments use torture, they are likely to use one or more of these techniques to reduce outrage.
The keys to backfire
- Reveal: expose the injustice, challenge cover-up
- Redeem: validate the target, challenge devaluation
- Reframe: emphasise the injustice, counter reinterpretation
- Redirect: mobilise support, be wary of official channels
- Resist: stand up to intimidation and bribery
The backfire model is about tactics to oppose injustice.
Backfire: an attack can be said to backfire when it creates more support for or
attention to whatever is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the
Backfire can be apparent in adverse public opinion or greater activity by opponents.
Even when a perpetrator seems to get away with an injustice, it can be
counterproductive in the long term.
Most injustices by powerful groups do not backfire, because they are able to reduce
Two conditions for backfire
- An action is perceived as unjust, unfair, excessive or disproportional.
- Information about the action is communicated to relevant audiences.
Five approaches for increasing outrage over injustice
- Expose the action
- Validate the target
- Emphasise interpretation of the action as an injustice
- Mobilise public concern (and avoid official channels)
- Resist and expose intimidation and rewards
An additional consideration: the timing of communication is vital.
Three relevant factors that affect reception of a message are:
- Receptivity: baseline sensitivity to injustice; meaning systems. If people are already concerned about a type of abuse, their reaction to a new case will be stronger. Social movements can create or increase receptivity.
- The information environment: visibility, salience (compared with other stories). What else is happening? If other important items are on the news, an injustice may receive little media attention.
- Actionability: existence of social movements, opportunities for action. When activists are prepared to act, a sudden injustice is more likely to backfire.
The five Rs of revealing, redeeming, reframing, redirecting and resisting can be used in reaction to an injustice or as a way of preventing it. For example, to help prevent police attacks, be prepared by having witnesses and cameras ready, dressing and behaving in an image-enhancing fashion, etc.
How the model can help
- Many activists think mainly about what they are going to do, such as hold a rally or start a campaign. The backfire model draws attention to what opponents will do, in particular the tactics powerful opponents will use to reduce outrage over injustice.
- Some activists think official channels provide a solution. For example, they sometimes campaign to get the government to set up an inquiry. The model points to the shortcomings of official channels, especially the way they dampen outrage.
- Activists often believe that injustice automatically creates outrage. For example, if police beat protesters or the government breaks the law, activists think everyone will see how unfair this is. The model shows that powerful perpetrators can use a wide range of techniques that reduce outrage.
The book is also available in many other languages. See Brian Martin’s website for translations.
Author’s note 1
1. The Backfire model 5
2. Backfire analysis 15
3. Preparing 43
4. Now and afterwards 75
5. Questions and responses 89
6. Exercises 97
7. Appendix: Human shields and pre-emptive backfire 103
Brian Martin, Backfire manual: tactics against injustice (Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2012), 112 pages.
Here are more Backfire Materials from the author’s website.
Talks and workshops
Backfire workshop: Notes for a low-technology workshop for 2-20 people, by Brian Martin.
Backfire workshop: Notes for a workshop, plus handouts on promoting backfire and on Plan B, by Jason MacLeod.
“Tactics against injustice”: PowerPoint show (1MB) for giving a talk/workshop, by Brian Martin.
Brian Martin. Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 244 pages
Brian Martin. From political jiu-jitsu to the backfire dynamic: how repression can promote mobilization. In Kurt Schock (ed.), Civil Resistance: Comparative Perspectives on Nonviolent Struggle (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), pp. 145-167
Brian Martin. Theory for activists. Social Anarchism, No. 44, 2010, pp. 22-41. Comments on developing theory using the example of the backfire model.
Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin. Campus activists: what to do about provocative speakers? Woroni (Australian National University student newspaper), 2 April 2019. How student protests against visiting speakers can backfire.
Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin. The Streisand effect and censorship backfire. International Journal of Communication, Vol. 9, 2015, pp. 656-671. Censorship can backfire, but often it doesn’t.
Brian Martin. Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network. Living Wisdom, Issue 8, February 2011, pp. 14-40. Also available in pdf. Part 3 includes an analysis of tactics used by the AVN’s opponents and how to counter them.
Brian Martin. Defending dissent. In Sue Curry Jansen, Jefferson Pooley and Lora Taub-Pervizpour (editors), Media and Social Justice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pages 145-158. Defamation, whistleblowing and censorship backfire: a personal account.
Hector Postigo. Information communication technologies and framing for backfire in the digital rights movement: the case of Dmitry Sklyarov’s advanced e-book processor. Social Science Computer Review, 2009. How the digital rights movement mobilised around the arrest of Sklyarov.
Brian Yecies. Planet Hallyuwood’s political vulnerabilities: censuring the expression of satire in The President’s Last Bang (2005). International Review of Korean Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2008, pp. 37-64. Censorship tactics over the Korean film The President’s Last Bang (2005, directed by Im Sang-soo).
Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin. Exposing and opposing censorship: backfire dynamics in freedom-of-speech struggles. Pacific Journalism Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, April 2004, pp. 29-45.
Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin. Making censorship backfire. Counterpoise, Vol. 7, No. 3, July 2003, pp. 5-15.
Patrick Hodder. Climate conflict: players and tactics in the greenhouse game. PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 2011. Tactics used by industry, government and scientists in the climate change struggle.
Susan Engel and Brian Martin. Union Carbide and James Hardie: lessons in politics and power. Global Society: Journal of Interdisciplinary International Relations, Vol. 20, No. 4, October 2006, pp. 475-490: the disasters of Bhopal and asbestos were potential backfires for the corporations held responsible.
Brian Martin. Corruption tactics: outrage management in a local government scandal. Resistance Studies Magazine, 2012. An analysis of tactics in the Wollongong corruption scandal.
Truda Gray and Brian Martin. Defamation and the art of backfire. Deakin Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2006, pp. 115-136. Five examples are used to show how defamation suits can backfire.
Brian Martin. What to do when you’ve been defamed. The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 45, February 2006, pp. 11-12.
Brian Martin and Truda Gray. How to make defamation threats and actions backfire. Australian Journalism Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, July 2005, pp. 157-166.
Brian Martin. Tactics against scheming diseases. Journal of Sociotechnical Critique, vol. 1, no. 1, article 2, 2020, pp. 1-20. How disease can be thought of as an active agent, with case studies of AIDS, smoking and human evil.
Brian Martin. Euthanasia tactics: patterns of injustice and outrage. SpringerPlus, Vol. 2, No. 256, 6 June 2013. Struggles over euthanasia, from the Nazi T4 programme to denial of voluntary euthanasia.
Brian Martin, Chris Moore and Colin Salter. Sharing music files: tactics of a challenge to the industry. First Monday, Vol. 15, No. 12, 6 December 2010.
Brian Martin. Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, October 2009, pp. 275-290.
Susan Engel and Brian Martin. Challenging economic inequality: tactics and strategies. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 50, No. 49, 5 December 2015, pp. 42-48.
Brian Martin. Tactics of political lying: the Iguanas affair. Journal of Language and Politics, vol. 13, no. 4, 2014, pp. 837-856. Two models for analysing tactics of political lying are applied to claims concerning the behaviour of two Australian politicians.
Samantha Reis and Brian Martin. Psychological dynamics of outrage against injustice. Peace Research: The Canadian Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2008, pp. 5-23.
Brian Martin. The Henson affair: conflicting injustices. Australian Review of Public Affairs, July 2008. Tactics used in relation to Bill Henson’s photographs of a naked girl are assessed as to whether they are characteristic of those used by perpetrators of injustice.
Truda Gray and Brian Martin. Backfires: white, black and grey. Journal of Information Warfare, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 2007, pp. 7-16: perpetrators can use black operations or ambiguous events as a pretext for action.
Brian Martin. Plagiarism struggles. Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification, Vol. 3, 2008. Tactics used by (alleged) plagiarists and those trying to detect or expose them.
Brian Martin. The beating of Rodney King: the dynamics of backfire. Critical Criminology, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 307-326.
Hugh de Kretser. Prison litigation: barriers to justice. Precedent (journal of the Australian Lawyers Alliance), Issue 81, July/August 2007, pp. 29-33: obstacles to justice when prisoners are abused by prison officers.
Brian Martin. How to counter Trump’s efforts to reduce outrage. Waging Nonviolence, 15 February 2017.
Brian Martin. How activists can challenge double standards. Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 2015, pp. 201-213. Tactics for exposing and countering double standards by governments and other powerful groups.
Brian Martin. Flotilla tactics: how an Israeli attack backfired. Truthout, 27 July 2010. Tactics used in the Israeli attack on the Free Gaza flotilla, May 2010.
Brian Martin. From means to ends and back again. In Jørgen Johansen and John Y. Jones (eds.), Experiments with Peace: Celebrating Peace on Johan Galtung’s 80th Birthday (Cape Town, South Africa: Pambazuka Press, 2010), pp. 214-219. In social action, it can be useful to turn goals into methods and methods into goals.
Brian Martin. Making accompaniment effective. In Howard Clark (ed.), People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (London: Pluto Press, 2009), pp. 93-97. The effectiveness of accompaniment – using international observers to protect activists under threat – is explained using the backfire model.
Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin. Sending the protest message. Gandhi Marg, Vol. 29, No. 4, January-March 2008, pp. 503-519. How protesters can connect with audiences, align their methods with their messages and deal with attacks.
David Hess and Brian Martin. Repression, backfire, and the theory of transformative events. Mobilization, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2006, pp. 249-267: backfires can be transformative events for social movements, as show by the cases of the 1930 salt march, the 1991 Dili massacre and 1972 arrest of alternative cancer therapist John Richardson.
Brian Martin. How nonviolence works. Borderlands e-journal, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2005; reprinted in Charles P. Webel and Jørgen Johansen (eds.), Peace and Conflict Studies: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 289-298: the events at the salt march illustrate how backfire analysis can extend Sharp’s concept of political jiu-jitsu.
Brian Martin and Iain Murray. The Parkin backfire. Social Alternatives, Vol. 24, No. 3, Third Quarter 2005, pp. 46-49, 70: activists opposing the deportation of US peace activist Scott Parkin from Australia in 2005 used backfire techniques.
Brian Martin. Rallying support. Peace News, March-May 2003, pp. 32-33.
Andrew Herd. Official channels or public action: refugees in Australia. Flinders Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 23, 2006, pp. 117-134.
Andrew Herd. Amplifying outrage over children overboard. Social Alternatives, Vol. 25, No. 2, Second Quarter 2006, pp. 59-63: the Australian government misrepresented the actions of refugees.
Sharon Callaghan and Brian Martin. Igniting concern about refugee injustice. In: Rick Flowers (ed.), Education and Social Action Conference, 6-8 December 2004 (Sydney: Centre for Popular Education, University of Technology, Sydney, 2004), pp. 299-303.
Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin. Outrage management in cases of sexual harassment as revealed in judicial decisions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 34, 2010, pp. 165-180.
Paula McDonald and Sandra Backstrom. Fighting back: workplace sexual harassment and the case of North Country. Australian Bulletin of Labour, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2008, pp. 47-63. How a victim opposed sexual harassment in the film North Country.
Greg Scott and Brian Martin. Tactics against sexual harassment: the role of backfire. Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 7, No. 4, May 2006, pp. 111-125. The case of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas is used to illustrate how to oppose sexual harassment.
Brian Martin. Opposing surveillance. In Katina Michael and M. G. Michael (eds), From dataveillance to überveillance and the realpolitik of the transparent society: the second workshop on the social implications of national security, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2007, pp. 71-82. Later published in IEEE Technology & Society Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 26-32. Methods of resisting surveillance.
Aloysia Brooks. The annihilation of memory and silent suffering: inhibiting outrage at the injustice of torture in the War on Terror in Australia. PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 2017.
Brian Martin and Steve Wright. Looming struggles over technology for border control. Journal of Organisational Transformation and Social Change, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2006, pp. 95-107.
Brian Martin and Steve Wright. Countershock: mobilizing resistance to electroshock weapons. Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Vol. 19, No. 3, July-September 2003, pp. 205-222: backfire analysis of the use of torture technology.
Brendan Riddick. Political violence and the management of outrage: the convergence of media and political power to conceal human suffering in the “war on terror”. PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 2013. The backfire and propaganda models applied to aspects of the war on terror, including Afghanistan, Fallujah, the Nisour Square Massacre, and drones.
Brendan Riddick. Outrage in Fallujah: strategies in the communication of political violence. In Anabèl Ternes (ed.), Communication: Breakdowns and Breakthroughs (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2013), pp. 173-183.
Brendan Riddick. The bombing of Afghanistan: the convergence of media and political power to reduce outrage. Revista de Paz y Conflictos, No. 5, 2012, pp. 6-19.
Truda Gray and Brian Martin. My Lai: the struggle over outrage. Peace & Change, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 90-113. A backfire analysis of the 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war.
Truda Gray and Brian Martin. The American war in Indochina: injustice and outrage. Revista de Paz y Conflictos, No. 1, 2008, pp. 6-28. How the US government tried to inhibit outrage from the bombing, the Phoenix Program and the My Lai massacre.
Brian Martin. Iraq attack backfire. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 16, 17-23 April 2004, pp. 1577-1583.
Mary Scott. Water privatization tactics: Cochabamba, Manila, New Delhi. PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 2015. Tactics used to encourage acceptance of putting public water supplies in private hands.
Whistleblowing and dissent
Brian Martin. Academic dissidents: be prepared for reprisals – and more. Brian’s Comments, 16 October 2017.
Brian Martin. Breaking the siege: guidelines for struggle in science. In Science under Siege: Zoology under Threat, eds. Peter Banks, Daniel Lunney and Chris Dickman (Sydney: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, 2012), pp. 164-170. A zoology case study is used to illustrate tactics.
Brian Martin. How to attack a scientific theory and get away with it (usually): the attempt to destroy an origin-of-AIDS hypothesis. Science as Culture, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2010, pp. 215-239. Tactics used in a scientific dispute to minimise outrage over perceptions of transgressing proper scientific behaviour.
Brian Martin. Corruption, outrage and whistleblowing. In Ronald J. Burke and Cary L. Cooper (eds.), Research Companion to Corruption in Organizations (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2009), pp. 206-216. Tactics used by corrupt operators to minimise outrage, and implications for whistleblowers.
Brian Martin. Enabling scientific dissent. New Doctor, No. 88, December 2008, pp. 2-5. Techniques for resisting attacks on dissent in science.
Brian Martin. Energising dissent. D!ssent, No. 24, Spring 2007, pp. 62-64: methods of resisting suppression of dissent, with a focus on Australia.
Brian Martin. Bucking the system: Andrew Wilkie and the difficult task of the whistleblower. Overland, No. 180, Spring 2005, pp. 45-48.
Brian Martin. Tactics against bullying at work. 2007.
Kylie Smith and Brian Martin. Tactics of labor struggles. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2007, pp. 193-206. How employers try to reduce outrage from anti-worker actions, with special attention to Patricks versus the Maritime Union of Australia.
Brian Martin. Resisting unfair dismissal: a campaigning approach. Leaflet, September 2005. Text published in The Whistle (Freedom to Care, UK), No. 26, October 2005, pp. 4-6.
Brian Martin. Boomerangs of academic freedom. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, #12, 2005, pp. 64-79. A summary published as “The boomerang effect,” Campus Review, Vol. 15, No. 26, 6 July 2005, p. 5. The dismissal of biologist Ted Steele from the University of Wollongong is analysed in backfire terms.
Brian Martin. The Richardson dismissal as an academic boomerang. In: Kenneth Westhues (ed.), Workplace Mobbing in Academe: Reports from Twenty Universities (Queenston, Ontario: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), pp. 317-330. Also in Kenneth Westhues, Administrative Mobbing at the University of Toronto: The Trial, Degradation and Dismissal of a Professor during the Presidency of J. Robert S. Prichard (Queenston, Ontario: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), Essays in Response, pp. 70-83.
Brian Martin with Will Rifkin. The dynamics of employee dissent: whistleblowers and organizational jiu-jitsu. Public Organization Review, Vol. 4, 2004, pp. 221-238.