Controlled opposition is a pretty wide topic, and one that can’t truly be covered in one quick article. At its core, it deals with the concept of someone who is actually part of the very thing he claims to be protesting against. There are a myriad of ways to do this, but a few well-known examples are the feds during the civil rights movement as COINTELPRO, the neo-Nazi rise in the 1990s, and similar efforts.

It’s easy to get caught up in the finger-pointing and playing “Who’s the fed?” but it’s just as easy to miss the signs when they’re right in front of you–and quite frankly, far more entities than just the government are playing the game. How can you navigate the minefield? There’s no easy checklist to use, no Cosmo-style quiz where you can count up the number of times you answered “b” and it’ll tell you the answer. What you can do, however, is start thinking in a different way. Recognizing controlled opposition means first being able to understand people, what motivates them and drives them, and understanding what those things — and the people they’re driving — will bring to your circle or group.

When you’re considering letting people into your group, for instance, the first big NO is the “so-and-so vouch.” As in, “well, John vouched for this guy Steve, and John is pretty solid, so that means this guy is probably pretty solid too.” No matter how awesome and trustworthy you think John is, he might have a really bad ability to judge character. He might not be able to see what you can see. He might even be better at the game than you, and is the springboard to bring in the type of people you don’t want. No matter how much John might brag to you about how great Steve is, you’re better off studying the relationship between John and Steve than you are just taking John’s word for how amazing Steve is. Why are they friends? How’d they meet? How close are they?

By all means, let John talk about his friend to you. If people want to talk to you and tell you information, let them. You never know when it’ll be useful. Spend time with Steve doing non-essential activities or just hanging out while evaluating him. There’s no need to interrogate the guy; in fact, if you take the time to learn some linguistic deception detection techniques, you won’t need to. You can simply let him talk and reveal his personality. Everyone eventually does; most people simply don’t know what they’re hearing when it comes out.

The bottom line here is that no one gets to simply enter the circle based on the say-so of so-and-so. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Like most things, recognizing things like controlled opposition requires thought. A few questions you should get familiar with:

  • What kinds of positions or situations do you think would allow someone to bypass vetting?
  • What kind of activities could someone be involved with if they were opposition?
  • What do they gain by being in those positions or doing those activities?
  • If they were being “handled,” what would their handlers gain?
  • Think outside the box. Who else might they be playing for besides “the feds”?
  • Go back to your critical information analysis. What could happen if they got access to your critical information?

Controlled opposition can be used for a long list of goals, as well. It’s not just as simple as someone infiltrating your group to “get you all arrested.” Sometimes far more can be accomplished, in fact, by not doing so.

  • Spreading bad information that swings you and your group’s activities in one direction or another, keeping you defensive, distracted, and controlled
  • Fomenting discord and drama by playing members against each other
  • Using access to put a wrench in your efforts
  • Doing stupid things that harm your ability to garner that critical public support your movement or group needs in your local area

The list goes on, and the only real limit to what a creative and skilled infiltrator can get away with is the blindness of his target. With a bit of effort, your group could end up eating each other from the inside out, dissolving in a sea of resentment. You could end up staying together but have your effectiveness brought down to near zero because you’re too busy dealing with internal crap to get anything else done. You could see your group’s public image and reputation ruined in your local area because you’re suddenly seen as a joke or worse.

It takes time — and many of the entities working against you have lots of it. They’re playing the long game, and many groups only think in terms of their next rally or action. Or, groups go to the other extreme and think in lofty, widespread long-term goals with no real, actionable plan for how they can get to those goals. Both of those positions can be exploited.

Do some research on what controlled opposition is, what it can do, and how it’s done. Think through some of the questions above. Look at drama or developing situations in your circle or group. Not everything is controlled opposition; sometimes people are just idiots or jerks. But being aware of what it looks like and what it can do will put you a little bit ahead of the game.

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