Agents Provocateurs as a Type of Faux Activist
In Snow, D. Della Porta, D., Klandermans, B. and McAdam, D. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Blackwell, 2012.

Gary T. Marx  |  Bio  |  Back to Main Page  |  References and further reading

When authorities or elites are challenged by a social movement, they may ignore it or respond with a variety of tools from cooptation to redirection to repression with many points in between. One extreme form of the latter is provocation. The idea of the agent provocateur entered popular consciousness in the 19th century as Europe experienced dislocation and conflicts associated with industrialization and urbanization. The concept initially referred to an activist secretly working with authorities who might provide information, sow suspicion and internal dissension, and/or provoke violent actions that would turn public opinion against a social movement and offer legal and moral grounds for its repression. The term has entered popular culture as the name of a lingerie brand and British electronica band.

There are many historical examples. Some of the most dramatic occurred in Russia where, lacking basic democratic rights, clandestine groups sought to overthrow the Tsar. Police responded by infiltrating existing groups and, in a strategy that could backfire, creating their own. Roman Malinovsky, a highly paid agent of the Russian secret police (Okhrana), was an important Bolshevik leader. The English Cato Street conspiracy offers a classic case. Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent provides a fictional account. Social movements in the United States in the 1960s saw many examples of provocation, some in conformity with the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO.) (Donner 1990; Cunningham 2005.) A New York detective helped open and headed the Bronx chapter of the Black Panthers, and Malcolm X's bodyguard, who tried to resuscitate him when he was shot, was an undercover police officer.

The phenomenon illustrates the often intricate interdependence between a social movement and its environment. While history and broad social structural variables create contexts of constraint and possibility, the daily events of a social movement and its career path are very much dependent on the contingencies of interaction within movements and between movements and authorities.

The topic fits within a number of areas of inquiry—social movement studies with an emphasis on the repression and facilitation of protest and the environmental engineering of behavior to preclude or direct behavior; the broader field of social control; criminal justice with an emphasis on undercover policing and legal restrictions; human rights protections and violations; and mass communication, censorship, surveillance and public opinion.

Claims about agents provocateurs must be carefully assessed given the deception and secrecy surrounding the topic, the vested interests of the parties involved (control agents do not wish to reveal operational tactics or behavior that might create bad public relations or harm a prosecution and activists with an interest in painting agents in a negative light.) Yet, much is known about agents provocateurs as a result of government hearings and court records, first person accounts from agents who publicly disavow their actions, leaks, Freedom of Information Act requests, archives, police training materials and investigative journalists.

The classical image of the 19th century European political, or U.S. labor union provocateur is today statistically atypical. In contemporary democratic societies laws, policies and the mass media are constraining and the more sophisticated control agents are aware of the challenges of controlling secret agents and the ever-present risks of backfire and blowback. Control in many ways has become more technical, mechanical, softer, diffuse and less visible.

Yet specious activists have not disappeared. Following 9/11, national enforcement priorities gave greater attention to terrorism than to traditional crime. Emphasis was placed on anticipatory control in which the goal is preventive rather than reactive after the fact. This requires information and budgets for more informants, and the number increased significantly. With this came a concomitant increase in opportunities and incentives for specious activism.

Social movements have much greater awareness of infiltration efforts and may take protective actions such as screening new members and even, as with the Black Panthers at one point, simply stop recruiting new members. It has even been suggested that movements use face-recognition technology to identify police, since police use this in crowd settings. The movement may engage in counter-intelligence activities directed toward social control agents.

The reciprocal efforts of social movements to control those who wish to control them have rarely been studied. Rather than passive recipients, movements are better viewed as actors in a dynamic process. The playing fields are not level but new means of surveillance and communication such as the computer, cell phone and video camera may help activists in defensive and offensive responses to social control efforts.

Contemporary movements, with a decentralized cell-like structure and those based on tribal and religious affiliation (as is particularly the case in African and Asia), are more difficult to infiltrate than open mass movements with a more heterogeneous social base and universalistic ideology. Ironically the openness of democratic movements and their interest in broad communication with the public makes them vulnerable to infiltration and overt surveillance.

The provocateur is better seen as one extreme type of the much larger category of the faux activist. Such hidden-agenda activists are other than what they appear to be. They may engage in a wide variety of actions – from seeking to damage a social movement to helping it or redirecting it away from illegal actions (agents conformistes.) At the level of abstract analysis a distinction must be made between the active participant (whether in legal and/or illegal behavior) and the more passive, observing bystander merely relaying information. However, given the need to establish their legitimacy and to learn anything in depth, it is difficult for a faux activist to simply remain an observer.

Faux activists may work for national or local police or the military, domestic or foreign governments, private interest groups, or rival social movements (whether those on the same side or those with opposing goals.) They may work as free-lancers such as investigative journalists, social scientists, and as individuals on an ideological mission or hoping to peddle what they discover. In recent years there appears to have been a significant increase in the use of faux activists by private corporations responding to challenges from globalization, environmental, anti-nuclear, and animal rights movements. (Lubbers 2012) There are also new hybrid forms blurring the line between state and private control organizations.

However large the number of activists formally in specious roles, a far greater number of persons on the fringes or in the immediate environment of the movement (such as a bar tender at a tavern favored by activists) serve as unofficial informants in the hip pockets of authorities passing on information.

Among other differentiating factors are whether the agent is a sworn police or military agent or a civilian (the most common form); infiltrated a group or was recruited after being a member and then was pressured or came forward voluntarily; and type of motivation. Determining motives can be challenging – they are varied, may change over time, and the same behavior such as encouraging militant action can result from different motives.

Among the most common individual motivations for the police is that being an informant is sometimes simply a part of a police officer's job. For non-police a distinction can be made between involuntary and voluntary participation. Common motivations for the former include coercive pressure such as to avoid prosecution or for a reduced sentence or to help a family member); and for the latter financial or other rewards; a counter ideology or at least belief that a group poses a dangerous threat; disenchantment and/or personal reasons on the part of those who began as activists; and seeking strategic advantage for a competing or opposing movement or interest group. Less frequently, a committed activist may nonetheless cooperate with authorities as a form of self-protection, or in an effort to affect the knowledge and behavior of control agents.

Motivations and allegiances can be exquisitely complex and fluid as the case of double and triple agents suggests. Consider the case of the legendary Russian Yevno Azef. He was a police agent for 15 years, five of which were spent as head of the most notorious terrorist organization in the pre-Soviet period. He betrayed many of his colleagues, but also arranged for numerous assassinations including the Minister of the Interior (his employer) and an attempt on the Tsar.

When activists are arrested for serious violations and a specious activist is identified, the defense may claim that those charged were entrapped – with the idea and resources for the action coming from the government agent. The prosecution will counter claim that the agent was passive, simply going along with the intentions of those arrested. New surveillance tools that generate a record, such as video and audio-taping and web and cell phone use, may be used to bolster authorities' cases. However, such data can be ambiguous and require interpretation. However clear the image and sound, they will not reveal interaction that was not recorded, which might change the meaning of what was documented (e.g., the possibility that an activist was initially resistant to, or ambivalent about, an illegal action or threat made to the activist if he or she does not go along with a plan.)

The secrecy of the setting can make it difficult to manage agents and to know if they are being truthful. They may have organizational, career or ideological incentives to exaggerate the threat posed by a movement and to play a provocative role, and infrequently the role of the double agent. Whether intended or unintended, they may create what they were charged with controlling.

In democratic settings with basic civil liberties, the need to sustain the veneer of legality and legitimacy among citizens can be conducive to reliance on hidden trickery and strategic disruption of an organization's ability to function. This can involve manipulating activists (particularly leaders) into illegal actions so they can be arrested – requiring that resources go to defensive needs and away from the pursuit of the broader goals; disrupting the flow of resources such as money and spaces to organize; creating paranoia and suspiciousness and harming morale and solidarity by creating the myth of surveillance which implies that watching is omnipresent (With respect to the student movement, a 1970 FBI memo for example encouraged creating the impression that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”); spreading disinformation; encouraging internal schisms and external conflicts with other organizations; and inhibiting or sabotaging planned actions and communication. In settings where there are no protections for freedom of speech and association and with few limits on the state's ability to search, detain and use violence, activists may simply disappear or be locked away, without resort to the elaborate trickery and subterfuge seen in more democratic settings where law creates formal limits, particularly when cases come before the court.

There has sometimes been a curious overlap in the goals of authorities and activists with respect to daring acts: the former viewing provocation as a means of repression and the latter as a way of raising public consciousness. In a risky strategy some social movements have welcomed repression in the hope that it would raise public awareness and sympathy, create martyrs and reveal the brutal face of the regime.

There is little systematic research on the impact of such agents. Given the vast differences in historical periods and contexts, little can be concluded other than to note a range of possible impacts and the ways in which they may vary depending on the time period. In establishing credibility and seeking to rise within an organization, agents can offer needed energy and resources. Trotsky was not much worried about agents, believing that they helped much more than they hurt. However, in conjunction with a broader array of control means, as Starr, Fernandez and Scholl (2011) show for the anti-globalization organizations,movements in democratic societies may also be seriously impaired by such actions.

SEE ALSO: Activism; Co-optation; Motivation and Types of Motives; Repression of Social Movements; Social Control, Social Control Errors,

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References and further reading

Chevigny, P. (1972.) Cops and Rebels: A Study of Provocation. New York: Pantheon Books.

Cunningham, D. (2005.) There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Donner, F. (1990.) Protectors of Privilege. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Earl, J., (2011.) "Political Repression: Iron Fists, Velvet Gloves, and Diffuse Control." Annual Review of Sociology,. 37.

Fernandez, L. and Huey, L. (2009.) special issue on “Surveillance and Resistance.” Surveillance and Society. 6:3.

Greenberg, I. (2010.) The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties since 1965. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books.

Huberman, L. (1937.) Labor Spy. New York: Modern Age.

Lubber, E. (2012) Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark. London: Pluto Press. Marx, G.T. (1974.) "Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant." American Journal of Sociology. vol. 80, pp. 402-442. 1974.

Rubenstein, R. (1994) Comrade Valentine: The True Story of Azef the Spy—The Most Dangerous Man in Russia at the Time of the Last Czars. New York:. Harcourt Brace and Company.

Starr, A., Fernandez, L. and Scholl, C. 2011. Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence in the Global Era. New York University Press.

Wolfe, B. (1948.) Three Who Made A Revolution. Washington DC: Dial Press.

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