by Lisha SterlingSeptember 15, 2020
In activist circles, sooner or later people can become concerned about the possibility of infiltrators in our midst. During intense periods of activity, I know of times when that concern has become nearly overwhelming. People look at others with suspicion, and mistakes, missteps, or miscommunications by a friend can become a source of doubt. It’s important to note that at such times, the fear of infiltrators itself can become a poison of its own.
Accusations of infiltration can destroy the trust of a group or movements as whole, plain and simple. The need for objective standards is paramount, but not all movements currently have them. In this blog post, I first lay out a way that movements can avoid this highly destructive tension altogether—by adopting ground rules for activist conduct. Yet this is not a reality for many movements, and there is a lot of gray area when it comes to determining whether someone is an infiltrator. So, I then explain a light-hearted exercise or game that can be played in case activists do find themselves in the undesirable position of having to determine whether someone is an infiltrator.
In an ideal world, a movement will have adopted some ground rules or a code of conduct which a person’s actions may be held up against, in order to keep the anxiety-inducing word “infiltrator” completely out of the conversation to begin with. Those ground rules should be specifically designed to bar the sorts of activities listed in the Media For Justice list of behaviors linked to agents provocateurs.
If someone is breaking that code of conduct, you do not need to address whether the person is an infiltrator. You simply need to cite how exactly they have broken the code of conduct in order to bar them from your group. Now, when they try to kick up a fuss, you have your documentation of exactly which rules they broke. The risk of sowing panic or distrust in the larger group or movement is reduced.
But what if your movement does not have ground rules and there is currently suspicion of an infiltrator?
At Standing Rock (North Dakota, USA) in 2016-17, while protesting a pipeline that would block the Sioux tribe’s water access, we came up with a game (of a sort) to help mitigate the sometimes debilitating fear of infiltrators and think more clearly about security. Really just a discussion, we called it a game to give the task a more light-hearted feel, so as to not stoke unnecessary fear among the small group of trusted individuals playing the “game.” We said, “There are two kinds of people in the world of activism: Assholes and Infiltrators.”
Here’s how it works: Within your small group, take turns describing one recent action of concern, and note whether others in the group noticed the action too. Note also whether others in the group felt the action was of serious concern or simply indicated a normal human fault. Take stock of general consensus at the end of the game.
When a person in the movement is declared an infiltrator and the label is wrong, we end up with serious division in the movement. In addition, the movement loses the talents and skills of the person wrongfully accused. Trust is lost and the hard feelings are difficult to reconcile. Whatever it was you were planning together can be wiped out by bad blood, and with it whatever effectiveness you would have had.
Infiltrators do exist, though, and care needs to be taken when you think you may have identified one. You may have noted all the signs of an infiltrator in one of the members of your cohort, but that doesn’t mean that you want to immediately spread the word of what you’ve found. Depending on how well trained they are and what their mission is, they may pretend that you have falsely accused them. They may go into high gear to assassinate your character, destroying your credibility to save their own. Or, having been found out, they may do something drastic to cause as much damage as possible on their way out.
If you are very certain that you have found an infiltrator in your midst, speak privately with some trusted people before taking any action. Do not announce that you have found an infiltrator. Instead, play the game of “Asshole or Infiltrator.” Compare notes.
Once you have determined that a person’s behavior is causing serious detriment to your group and goals, the next step is to decide what to do about it. One option, of course, is to call them out and remove them from your group. Unfortunately, even when you have more than one person on your side agreeing that a person is probably an infiltrator, calling them out can still have all the consequences mentioned above.
Yet you don’t always need or want to kick possible infiltrators out of your group (especially when it’s very difficult to determine whether they are an asshole or an infiltrator). Sometimes you can use them to help you instead.
One strategy is to give people with low trust or a history of problematic behavior jobs that will help the movement but cannot cause significant harm. You want them to be busy, but out of earshot of sensitive discussions and away from sensitive equipment that they might sabotage. Low-risk tasks might include:
Lastly, similar to security best practices for businesses, apply the principle of least privilege to the roles within your movement. If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to have a discussion in your group about what responsibilities different people have and what powers or privileges are necessary to complete those. This might apply to who gets keys to an office, who has administration or moderation rights on an online forum, how money and other resources are handled, and what procedures you have in place to mitigate insider threats, whether accidental or purposeful.
A word of wisdom here though: Maintaining a strong security culture throughout your group involves real trade-offs, and movement leadership should be cautioned to consider their particular context to determine what qualifies as a healthy security culture versus a culture of excessive secretiveness—which obviously can sabotage things as well.
In the end, there may well be some people whom you never figure out are infiltrators until long after everything is over. The best solution to the problem of the unknown infiltrator is not to distrust everyone, but rather to avoid this potentially disastrous tension altogether by adopting and enforcing a clear code of conduct for all participants. If you isolate people who refuse to maintain your agreed-upon security protocols or who break your code of conduct, then you will have effectively defeated the enemy in your camp.
Security culture within movements is a highly sensitive and complex topic that often leads to heated debate. As such, this blog post aimed to zoom in on just one of many tools that movements can embrace to achieve a healthier security culture. For more information on other security culture topics, check out my blog posts on understanding what a movement’s threat model really is, and on keeping yourself and your community safe when engaging online.
Lisha Sterling is executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, a nonprofit organization supporting open source technology in low resource situations through education, hackathons, and an accelerator program to help promising humanitarian technology projects become sustainable. She is also on the board of directors at Frontline Wellness United.Read More