I have come across the following political phenomenon recently and I can’t find the right word for it.

Imagine a group of people (say an ethnic minority or gender) who campaign against their mistreatment by the government. Now imagine the government secretly sets up another group populated by people of the same minority (or gender) who supposedly are campaigning for the same cause. But in fact their job is to undermine the arguments against the government and so to discredit the original group of complainants.

What do you call such a group?

  • 1
    How about "trolls"?
    – Masked Man
    Apr 1, 2018 at 15:45
  • I’ve been looking for this expression myself I don’t think what has been said quite covers it. It can be very subtle like creating a conspiracy theory that’s a bit ridiculous in order to discredit conspiracy theorists, this happens all the time. I believe this strategy was invented or developed by multinational companies to undermine their opponents. I’ve use the expression it in the past but I just can’t remember what it is. Jul 21, 2020 at 8:12

9 Answers 9


This is a False Flag operation, almost exactly by definition.

  • The group might be called a counter gang.
    – Clearer
    Mar 31, 2018 at 19:09
  • 2
    I'd say "false flag" applies exclusively to military or quasi-military action perpetrated supposedly by another country (hence the "flag"). Political movements do not have flags—well, they might have one, but that is not their usual attribute that defines them the way a flag defines a country, it is a mere variation of branding (unusual to boot).
    – user68912
    Apr 1, 2018 at 21:27
  • @tenebris2020 The expression false flag has been genericized to mean any sort of sockpuppet pretending to be an opponent. Apr 2, 2018 at 5:26
  • 3
    @chrylis - It's more like 'flag' (or 'banner') has been metaphorised to stand for the representative philosophy of a group, and 'false flag' has been carried along. Apr 2, 2018 at 9:12
  • 1
    @chrylis I haven't seen this term applied to something restricted to internal political struggles. If it's been applied this way, it is a metaphor that might not be applicable to a specific situation, because depending on the country you are talking about, the political situation might be such that the term might be misunderstood to mean exactly an intervention by another country. This is a ground that has to be treaded carefully.
    – user68912
    Apr 2, 2018 at 10:46

Being Spanish, the expression Fifth column comes immediately to mind. It looks like it has been used in English, but I do not know how usual it is.

  • 2
    And, on second thoughts, Trojan horse.
    – Miguel
    Mar 31, 2018 at 15:00
  • 1
    "Fifth column" is common in English, but doesn't mean this. It refers to the first group in the question, not the second. Mar 31, 2018 at 16:06
  • 1
    @LukeSawczak from the Wikipedia article: "A fifth column is any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favour of an enemy group or nation." That's exactly what OP is describing.
    – RonJohn
    Apr 1, 2018 at 16:50
  • 3
    @RonJohn Wikipedia is unfortunately being too broad here. It's not about any "larger group", it's specifically about a country, where a "fifth column" is accused of working in the interests of another, hostile, country. britannica.com/topic/fifth-column
    – user68912
    Apr 1, 2018 at 21:34
  • 2
    @LukeSawczak Indeed, it's about a country. Using it to apply to a group within a movement would be possible only as a metaphor.
    – user68912
    Apr 1, 2018 at 21:38

Slightly broader than you asked: (in US) when a powerful group (government, political, commercial, or religious) recruits or employs people to simulate popular support for the powerful group or its position(s) or proposal(s), usually but not inherently by opposing, criticizing, or interfering with the (other) people who criticize or oppose the powerful group, it is called Astroturf or Astroturfing (not always capitalized, sometimes hyphenated).

This is a metaphor: actual Astroturf is a brand of artificial grass widely used for sports facilities, and groups or movements truly made up of ordinary people are called 'grassroots' (sometimes hyphenated), so Astroturf-ers are artificial or fake versions of such groups and people.


A name for the individuals in such a group, which could be pluralized for the group, agents provocateurs.

  • 3
    An agent provocateur would try to incite the real protesters to criminal action. The question is about a group who acts as though they are the real protesters in order to discredit them.
    – Planky
    Apr 1, 2018 at 12:22
  • A fair point. I did not take OP's question to imply that this second group was populated exclusively by pretenders seeking to discredit the cause. I was thinking of a "local chapter", if you will, which was set up and manipulated by agents provocateurs.
    – TimR
    Apr 1, 2018 at 14:17
  • 1
    @Planky inciting some protestors to violence would certainly discredit the movement.
    – RonJohn
    Apr 1, 2018 at 16:48

Maybe, we should call them saboteurs since their job is to sabotage the first group's cause? Here's the meaning of the verb to sabotage as defined by the Collins English Dictionary:

If someone sabotages a plan or a meeting, they deliberately prevent it from being successful.


I would call a person who works for the government and goes undercover in the group to undermine the group's authority or message an infiltrator, according to Cambridge Dictionary:

​a person who secretly becomes part of a group in order to get information or to influence the way the group thinks or behaves

The group itself could be referred to using the plural: infiltrators.

Attribution: "Infiltrator Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary." Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed March 31, 2018. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/infiltrator.

  • 1
    This seems like the most correct answer as it is unspecific to the actions of the individuals yet captures the point of a person disguising themselves as a group member.
    – Milo
    Apr 2, 2018 at 2:21
  • 2
    An "infiltrator" needs to join a real group, aiming to undermine it from within. What we are talking here is setting up a separate group that might not even be communicating with a real one, to project a false image to the general public.
    – user68912
    Apr 2, 2018 at 10:48
  • @tenebris2020 you might say they are infiltrating the movement advocating the idea the first group stands for. That doesn't necessarily require them to actively be in contact with the first group.
    – JJJ
    Apr 2, 2018 at 10:53
  • @JJJ That's not how "infiltrating" usually works. An infiltrator joins a group usually to keep tabs on them. His/her function might not even be to provoke them to something. Govts sometimes send agents to infiltrate groups the govt considers subversive to know what they are up to at any given time. That's the meaning of infiltrating.
    – user68912
    Apr 2, 2018 at 11:40

Just yesterday, lazily following the political developments in my country (Ukraine) where a lot of political "innovations", both home-grown and imported, are constantly being tested, I saw a similar phenomenon being called

fake activists.

Yes, that plain and simple.

All the suggestions made so far apply to situations that differ in important aspects from what you want to say.

A "false flag operation" is when a group of soldiers (or special forces operatives) of country A perpetrate a violent act making it look like they were in fact soldiers/operatives of country B. It has never (to my knowledge) been used for the situation that you are describing, which is a political trick restricted to civilian life. A classic example of a false flag operation is one that gave the Soviet Union a pretext to attack Finland in 1939, when "unknown operatives" shelled a Soviet border guard post, and this act was pinned on Finns (giving the Soviet Union the pretext to attack Finland), when in fact it was perpetrated by Soviet operatives.

"Th fifth Column" is a term amply present in our political discourse when discussing who is a "useful idiot" who, by his/her/their actions, benefits Russian interests, but again this is not used in discussions that do not involve an external enemy. The "fifth column" may not even exist—it might be an imaginary group of people that is accused of working for a different, purportedly hostile, country. E. g., this article from The New Yorker describes how President Putin of Russia sees people who are dissatisfied with his rule as people who try to sow discord and are thus working for the purportedly hostile West.

"Infiltrators" join a certain group—they don't set up a rival group that mimics someone.

Etc. etc.

People who pretend to be activists (of whatever movement) are just that — fake activists.


I'd probably call them entryists.

  • That doesn't really seem to apply to a situation where the dishonest actors set up a separate group.
    – stangdon
    Apr 2, 2018 at 20:48

Another term, which is used particularly when the government in your question is the Russian or former Soviet government, is active measures. According to Wikipedia (the quote in the Wikipedia excerpt is from The Mitrokhin Archive):

Active measures range "from media manipulations to special actions involving various degrees of violence". They were used both abroad and domestically. They included disinformation, propaganda, counterfeiting official documents, assassinations, and political repression, such as penetration into churches, and persecution of political dissidents.

Example from Wikipedia:

Operation INFEKTION was a KGB disinformation campaign to spread information that the United States invented HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project at Fort Detrick, Maryland. (link to corresponding Wikipedia page)

In your case you could say those part of the government group to undermine the other group are members of active measures against that group.


1 "Active Measures." Wikipedia. April 04, 2018. Accessed April 04, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_measures.

2 "Operation INFEKTION." Wikipedia. April 04, 2018. Accessed April 04, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_INFEKTION.

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