Agent Provocateurs and How to Recognize Their Work

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Agent provocateurs (French for inciting agents) are a powerful tool to discredit a movement.

People in groups are disturbingly easy to manipulate to precipitous action. A crowd is like water, able to be made to flow one way or another by simple action upon it.

The purpose of this article is to educate you on some of the techniques that could be employed to incite a crowd to violent or other action without the cause being readily apparent. By design, there is not sufficient information in this article to exercise these techniques. These methods are deceitful and dishonorable, and should not be employed by people of integrity.

Why Did You Applaud?

Think about times when you have been in a crowd, perhaps at a speech or even a show. Sometimes you applaud because it is the right cultural moment, such as the end of a song or when someone arrives on stage. However, sometimes you might be watching a speech, and the speaker says something that you can’t be sure in the first moment if you liked it or not.

Everyone around you begins to applaud, and you come off the fence and decide that if everyone else liked it, you probably did too, and you join the applause. Not wanting to believe you are easily manipulated, your mind fades the memory of indecision prior to joining the crowd’s opinion.

How did you know everyone else was applauding? Was everyone else applauding? You could probably hear the sound of applause, and it was probably coming from both sides of you. You could see movement, which, combined with the sound, your brain determined to be people applauding.

Different people in different situations have different thresholds at which they will be encouraged to join in, but, as the applause begins, the people with the lowest thresholds for action will join. Then the people with slightly higher thresholds will be compelled to join by the increased volume. The snowball of applause will continue to grow until almost everyone joins. Of course, all of this happens imperceptibly in a matter of seconds.

This assumes a few things. First, it assumes a homogeneous crowd. In other words, a crowd in which you assume most other people in the crowd are basically likely you so you can accept their reaction uncritically. In a debate audience, hearing people clap for the candidate you oppose will not convince you to join them. However, in a rally in response to police violence, for example, if there are speakers who advocate peaceful response and speakers who advocate violent response most people in the audience will fall somewhere in the middle and can be influenced by their perception of the crowd’s mood.

Five well disciplined and properly places people can direct a crowd of hundreds.

Let’s imagine we have a crowd of a few hundred people and someone wants to manipulate the crowd’s reactions. It can be done with as few as five, well organized people. One in the center, and the other four towards the corners of the crowd, within 20-50 yards of the center agent. Even in a larger crowd, this formation could work to influence a portion of the crowd, which would potentially spread, but more likely more agents would be required.

This is even more effective in a crowd where people are standing and there is some milling about. The agents can maintain a small amount of motion. If you are next to someone who is applauding before everyone else every time, you might get suspicious, but if they move just a few feet, they will be surrounded by different people. (In a moving crowd, such as a protest march, this becomes quite simple as there is already an energetic dynamic and it’s simply a matter of redirecting that energy.)

There is a split second after a statement is made by a speaker when applause would feel natural. During this moment, your subconscious mind is listening for a response to seek confirmation or to determine if this might be a point you support.

Coordinated agents listen carefully for that moment, and begin, at the same moment, to applaud. As a member of the audience anywhere other than the edge, you will hear applause in front of, behind, and to the side of you. The sound of just three to five people suddenly applauding will sound like a crowd reaction, especially because it will provoke others to applaud as well.

A speaker that you had previously been skeptical of will appeal more compelling. Again, this will not turn a Republican into a Democrat or convince a someone to turn against strongly held beliefs, but it could certainly convince someone who is internally conflicted to come off the fence.

Let’s apply this to our hypothetical rally against police brutality. An innocent victim was killed in a racially charged incident and a rally is called. Some speakers are calling for peaceful protest while others are calling for violent response.

The agent provocateurs want violence because it will discredit the movement. Using their trained and ready agents strategically placed in the crowd, they can give each person in the crowd the sense that the rest of the crowd is more supportive of the violent speakers and less supportive of the peaceful ones.

Fog of War

There is a concept in propaganda known as FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. In politics it is often deployed by doing things like asking questions that people will supply their own answers to (“Is my opponent a socialist?”), or using phrases like “judge for yourself,” which often has the effect of causing an audience to question evidence they have seen.

Before discussing the how, let’s talk about the why. Why would someone want to turn a peaceful protest into a riot? Most American politics is a fight for the Middle. A small group of people are on the Right, and a small group are on the Left, but the large, relatively independent Middle is where change can occur. The Middle is compelled to sympathy when they hear about an innocent man killed by police, but that sympathy evaporates when the response to the incident is violence. Thus, strategic political violence can be used to dissipate the political moment for change that a tragedy creates.

Let us take the situation of an emotionally charged protest, whether it’s a protest of police brutality or an anti war protest or any other similar situation where violence might erupt. The crowd does not have clear leadership, armed and armored police are present, and everyone is on edge.

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A crowd is noisy, scary, and confusing to be in the middle of.

The individual member of the crowd is angry at the situation but afraid of what might happen. They cannot see what is happening around them because of the rest of the crowd. There is noise of people yelling, possibly sirens or other loud noises, and everyone is carrying a mixture of fear and anger.

How would you turn this peaceful but angry crowd into a riot? Similar to the audience in the example above, different people have different thresholds for violence and looting. Individuals naturally fall along a continuum of propensity for violence, but for simplicity, let’s give them numbers 1-4.

A 1 is itching for violence. They won’t start it, but given any provocation, they’re ready to start throwing rocks. This is a small proportion of any crowd, but since they may be seeking a conflict in general, they may be drawn to a protest in the hopes of having the chance to fight.

A 2 is ready to throw rocks, but they would never be the first or even the tenth person to do so. However, if enough around them start, they’ll get into it.

A 3 is generally peaceful, but they can be swept up in violence if there’s enough around them.

A 4 is completely peaceful, and should violence erupt, they will flee if possible, or hide if necessary.

For the agent provocateurs to turn a peaceful protest into a riot, they must raise the temperature of the situation enough to get the 1’s to engage in violence, which will entice the 2’s to join in, then the 3’s. As the violence increases, the peaceful 4’s and many 3’s will flee, leaving all those who remain the violent actors, making the protest look like it was full of violent people to begin with. Furthermore, hearing of violence, 1’s who were not even present at the original rally, might come out to join the violence, exacerbating the situation.

How would they turn up the temperature? First, they can do so with rumors. Anonymous agents (remember that most people are wearing masks) can move through the crowd telling people that they heard the police are about to attack or other rumors to cause fear. They can also use rumors to cause anger, such as a false report of a new atrocity at another rally.

Once the crowd is sufficiently keyed up, the agents can provoke the crowd with direct action. A handful of people could start throwing rocks or otherwise initiate violence. They could flip a car or start a fire. The image of fire, broken windows, or flipped cars, the smell of smoke, and the sound of destruction will shift the perspective of those in the crowd, enticing the 1’s to join in.

These initial actions could also provoke a police response. The threat of police violence is a deterrent, but actual police violence is a provocation.

Once violence has broken out, a small number of voices shouting, “Let’s smash the Target store,” can drive the crowd forward.

Yes, This Applies to You Too

You may be reading this in the safety of your home and thinking that you would not be swayed by such obvious tactics. You are educated and reflective, so this doesn’t apply to you. In that case, you would be mistaken.

Most middle class Americans have never been in a situation where they have been as angry and scared as protesters are. The discussion of why protesters are angry and scared is a discussion for another time, but the fact is that the anger and fear are very real.

For older readers, you may have participated in Vietnam War protests. The Vietnam War protests were so intense because the protesters were both angry at the war and also fearful that they could be call to serve and die in a war they didn’t believe in.

The black community is similarly angry and afraid today. They are angry that members of their community are being unjustly murdered by the people whose job it is to protect them, and they are scared because the next victim could be themselves or someone they love.

You may still object that no matter how angry or afraid you were, you could not be driven to violence. This is possible. You may be a 4, but that is only because of deep seated pacifistic beliefs. Whether or not you can be driven to actual violence, I assure you that you, I, and everyone else are just as vulnerable to this kind of manipulation as anyone else. If you can be provoked to anger and fear, and if you can be made to doubt your sources of information, then FUD can be deployed to make you susceptible to action that you might not take in better times.

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If you can be provoked on social media, imagine if you feared for your life in a loud, terrifying environment.

We see this on modern social media. Instead of agents in the crowd, we have bots and fake accounts spreading rumors and false articles. These false rumors create doubt in sources of information, fear of what could come next, and ultimately action that one would never perform normally.

Otherwise kind people calling their friends names, calling them unamerican, insulting their intelligence, and even threatening them.

If otherwise kind people can be provoked to antisocial behavior in the safety of their homes on a computer, just imagine the power these techniques have on a noisy, dusty street with sirens blaring, voices shouting, and adrenaline flowing.

The purpose of this article is so you can understand the techniques and strategies that can be deployed to manipulate a crowd to improper action. It is so you can recognize it when you see is deployed against groups that you are debating if you should support or oppose, and it is so you can recognize it when it is deployed against you.

We are all susceptible to manipulation, all the more so if we refuse to believe that we are. Our best defense is to approach the world and each other with compassion rather than fear, and then to ask “who benefits?” as we assess a situation.

Are you having trouble making sense of what you are seeing? Is your organization fighting a misinformation campaign or having difficulty pushing your message through the noise? We can help. Contact us for a free, no obligation consultation.

Michael Whitehouse has studied the use of information and misinformation for many years. His considerable experience in business and political settings combined with his network of communications resources gives him a formidable capability to help you with your communications crisis.

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