About the Author

Fighting in the shadows: moles and activists

  1. Motivation
  2. Information
  3. Disruption
  4. Reciprocality
  5. Copyright

MJ Ray
12 August 2004, revised 25 October


Having moles as part of activist groups is not harmful and can be turned to our advantage if the group is carefully constructed.

1. Motivation

I currently work for a group which collaborates with other groups. In this paper, I refer to all like-minded active groups as "us" and call those who work for our aims, whether members or not, "activists". If you prefer, replace those terms with something else. I am not attached to them, and I know they have some conceptual baggage, but I could not think of something better.

At a recent meeting, some of us expressed concerned about moles in activist organisations. One group said they knew their supporter list had moles in the past. I have spent some time away thinking about this recently. While away, I saw the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" which includes a short section about a police mole in a peace activism group. Upon my return, I have also researched the topic using social informatics and CSCW publications, mostly online and found via the VLib page

Few publications seem to cover this topic directly, so I wrote this paper. I'm no expert, but the following thoughts came to mind. Further, this is my opinion: that should not need stating, but it seems to. If you write to me about this, remember I am no sociologist and I am likely mistaken rather than evil. I would welcome hearing about stronger papers on this topic.

It does not matter whether an activist is a mole or not, as long as they work well for you. The mole may be working against you in secret, but they would probably work against you anyway. To be an effective mole, they have to do some helpful work in order to avoid detection. They are a resource that we would not have access to if they weren’t a mole.

Therefore, specific "mole hunts" are actually unhelpful because they gain nothing, make falsely-accused members unhappy and do not prevent future moles. Indeed, they may give a false sense of security.

If you suspect a group has a mole, check that it has adequate protection against moles and act to repair if needed. Those who oppose repairs are either moles or accept a different level of protection to you. Ultimately, it is the decision of each activist whether they accept to work within a particular organisation, support it, or work independently. If you think a group is fatally mole-prone, work independently.

2. Information

For the mole to be a net benefit to us, we must make sure that we require each activist to do work proportional with the amount of information that they receive from us. So, a member of a core group must do more work than someone on the member list or advisory panel, otherwise they could get a very good "mole return on investment" (MROI). If they do not, we must not hesitate to use whatever means we have to remove them.

The amount of work required for each "level of access" should be agreed in advance and we should think about MROI when deciding it. Of course, supporters may do work exceeding the requirement for their level of access and that’s brilliant. Our cause "wins" and if they are a mole, they’re getting a lower MROI than we decided to accept. If you think they do work just to gain access, it doesn’t matter, but keep watching them.

A strong incentive for moles is to gain access to information which an ordinary member of the public cannot get. We can reduce the MROI by increasing the amount of our internal information we publish. We may not want to, because reducing the benefit may reduce the incentive for moles: it may reduce the amount of work we can make our opponents do for us.

Another way to reduce the MROI is by reducing the rate at which you share information privately. By that, I mean that you tell someone part of the information straight away and you expect some work before telling them the rest. I seem to have started doing this instinctively recently. Unfortunately, because it was instinctive, I was inconsistent, which I know upset a friend for a short while. I hope that this message explains my motives a little, as well as suggesting ways for others to combat moles.

3. Disruption

A second danger from moles is disruption. If the mole has burrowed deep into the group, they are likely to have a strong role in decision-making and information distribution. They may try to provoke a wrong decision, or they may spread misinformation within the group (such as the FUD we know and love).

I am not going to dwell on decision-making methods, because I believe it doesn’t matter why someone is trying to disrupt decision-making and strategies for decision-making are already well-discussed in other articles. Please note how probable it seems that activist groups will have disruptive decision- makers at some point, given the above incentives for moles.

With information distribution, I think the main problems are misinformation and lack of communication. To avoid misinformation, secret contact with activists should be discouraged. Activist groups sometimes want to do all work in secret, to try to surprise targets, but that increases MROI, if my theory above is accurate. Even if the information is sensitive, there must be some protocol for the information to be disclosed eventually. Then MROI is limited: the mole will be indicated by the misinformation being published, or by the failure to follow an agreed protocol.

Avoiding lack of communication is often obstructed by measures to avoid misinformation. I don’t wish to write too much about this, because I have recently been in a communication-blocking dispute and I don’t think any of us thinks we have a mole (but we should probably remember that it is possible). Nevertheless, MROI on blocking communications with members should be considered when agreeing a protocol.

4. Reciprocality

Finally, I wish to note that moles usually work in secret because they have to avoid discovery, by definition. The secrecy means there is a high MROI for activist-supporting moles inside mole-using organisations. That is circular, though, because activists will need to try to keep the mole secret, and the mole must work against the group’s aims, so not necessarily an argument for activists to encourage moles.

5. Copyright

Copyright 2004 MJ Ray, current email

Permission is granted for any act restricted by copyright, as long as this notice is preserved.

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