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How Controlled Opposition Divides Movements
The common tactic of triangulation explained.
Controlled opposition is when someone appears to be on the side of a person, movement, or cause, while actually working for their opposition.
One of the best examples of controlled opposition ever shown on screen is in the film Matewan (1987). Matewan tells the story of a famous historical labor strike. Unbeknownst to the workers, one of the people on their side (spoiler) is secretly working for the company they are striking against.
This controlled opposition agent continually seeks to undermine the union organizer, going so far as to plant a false rape accusation against him and try to get one of the other worker’s leaders to assassinate him. Since there are already racial tensions between the workers, he selects a black leader to carry out the assassination, knowing that it will divide the white and black workers if one side commits unprovoked violence against the other and make a union impossible.
Assassination is illegal and expensive. In modern times, movement leaders are usually taken out through character assassination. While assassination is when you remove a leader by killing him, character assassination is when you remove a leader by killing his reputation. Character assassination is much safer and cheaper. Actual assassination requires trained killers, whereas character assassination can be accomplished through a rumor or out-of-context quote. Yet, the intent is the same.
I originally had a section on controlled opposition in The Intactivist Guidebook but removed it because I thought it was too far-fetched and would only make people paranoid. Now, I’m not so sure.
Here is a common controlled opposition tactic I’ve seen regularly employed:
Make a fake account. The fake account says it is a member of a movement. The fake account posts offensive statements on behalf of the movement. Screenshot fake account. Post that screenshot on your real account and demand your opposition disavow the hateful statement one of their members made. Congrats, you’ve just turned your opposition into a “hate” movement.
The key to this tactic is that once a real opposition leader responds to the fake statement, it becomes real. If they disavow, you can forever say “[public figure] had to disavow the hateful people within his own movement!” If they don’t, you can say “[public figure] refused to disavow the hate in their movement!” It’s a trap in my book The Intactivist Guidebook I call “The Disavow Game".”
This tactic can be used between organizations. If a controlled opposition agent goes to one organization and says another person in the movement secretly said or did something bad and they need to disavow them, this accusation can become real once real organizations start treating it that way. If one organization disavows another, the controlled opposition can say “this person was so bad their own side disavowed them!” and use that as evidence the accusation is real.
At minimal, rumors can be used to sow discord within a movement. Minor rumors like “this person doesn’t like you” can keep organizations from collaborating together. This is an abuse tactic known as triangulation. Triangulation is a form of manipulation where someone turns one person against another to fight a proxy conflict for them. It’s used by controlled opposition, because if a movement is fighting amongst itself, then it isn’t fighting for its cause. This is why in The Intactivist Guidebook I say that a movement is only as strong as the relationships within it.
Controlled opposition agents basically function the way toxic personalities (narcissists, sociopaths, etc.) do in social groups. People with healthy relationships are usually safe from them. The problem is - how many people have healthy relationships?