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: