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Agent Provocateur

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"Now, this is only one of a number of similar episodes. In recent years, it appears, there has entered for the first time, systematically and unashamed, into the administration of British justice the repellent figure of the agent provocateur, which is a French expression signifying an official spy who causes an offence to secure a conviction; and I use that phrase partly to impress upon you your own profound ignorance and partly because there is no other. There is no other phrase, and for a very good reason, the idea is so repugnant to British notions of fair play and decency that it has never found expression in our language."
Rex v The Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, Chief Inspector Charles, Inspector Smart, Sergeant Oliphant and Constable Boot, reported in Uncommon Law

In spy lingo, this is a covert operative whose job is to incite rebellion, entice defectors or goad the enemy into a foolish action (sometimes to the point of skirting with the False Flag Operation). Even though it's a sexy French word, the Agent Provocateur got the short end of the sexy spy stick. They are looked down upon by... pretty much everyone else and a prime reason why people think that Spies Are Despicable.

It may have something to do with the fact that—as a Treacherous Advisor—they are inherently untrustworthy. One side (the Agent Provocateur's true alignment) believes they are inciting foolish, risky attacks against them, while the other side (the infiltratees) thinks they are inciting foolish, risky behavior in their friends.

Confused yet? That's probably why these guys aren't nearly as popular in fiction as they are in Real Life. In Real Life it's good if no one can figure out a covert operative's cover. In fiction, on the other hand...

Common conspiracy theory trope. See also Astroturf. Compare with Double Agent. Not necessarily one of Les Collaborateurs, though he or she may double as this. Not to be confused with a Honey Trap. Or the 1984 Foreigner album.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Ishval uprising is supposedly the result of a soldier accidentally shooting an Ishval boy. It was actually Envy, who had posed as an Armestrian soldier and shot the child with the intent of causing the rebellion. This is pretty much the Homunculi's modus operandi: they start wars for the express purpose of drawing the enormous transmutation circle Father needs for his master plan.
    • In the 2003 anime adaptation, a group of special forces had been tasked with starting the Ishbal uprising. This group of special forces is then used in experiments to create chimeras who are let loose after the 5th laboratory arc and expose the whole conspiracy. The story of the child getting shot is then spread around as a coverup.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Comic Cavalcade tie in to the Wonder Woman Vol 1 Saturn storyline Bandia and Sheika place themselves on Paradise Island imitating Diana and Hippolyte to try to force the Amazons to declare war on the United States of America. They very nearly succeed.
  • Judge Dredd: Judge Dredd crushed the Democracy march on orders of Chief Judge Silver by planting Judges in the crowd and inciting violence so they'd have an excuse to crack down hard on the protestors.

    Fan Works 
  • Star Wars vs Warhammer 40K: During the Second Battle of Axum, the Axum Resistance is infiltrated by an undercover Imperial Inquisitor who quickly rises through their ranks and becomes their leader. Said Inquisitor wastes no time goading his rebel underlings into taking borderline suicidal actions that seem to be designed to get as many of them killed as possible. The most notable example is when he has the Axumites perform a Zerg Rush on foot against a heavily-fortified Imperial stronghold while rubbishing the Jedi's reasonable request to wait a few hours for more reinforcements to arrive before starting The Siege.
  • Wiki Warrior: Wukong is summoned by Taylor and thus loyal to her, but he soon runs away to join the ABB. Where he proceeds to use his psychoanalytic powers to foment suspicion, unrest, and strife, bringing down one leader after another, and internally laughing about it the whole time.

  • The film Matewan, about labor unrest and the formation of a miner's union in 1920s West Virginia, had the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency engaged in this activity, through their mole in the union trying to discredit an outside labor organizer and persuading a young miner to plant a bomb to shut down one of the mines.
  • Dark Blue World (2001). One of the inmates in the post-war prison in Communist Czechoslovakia suggests they steal a tool from the doctor's office and use it to break out. Later he admits the guards put him up to it, so they could have an excuse to beat up the protagonist. According to the DVD Commentary this was Truth in Television.
  • This is pretty much the point of Attack of the Clones mixed with a False Flag Operation. Count Dooku is sent to stir up the galaxy against Chancellor Palpatine in order to make it so the latter can justify seizing more power. The reason it's the former and not the latter is the troops on the ground had no idea they were just cannon fodder for Palpatine's goals and the Separatist cause was never meant to succeed.
  • Blue Thunder. Implied with the Government Conspiracy behind the titular helicopter. When looking through the diary of a councilwoman who was murdered, the police note a reference to "strangers in the ghetto, stirring up trouble". Apparently the idea is to create riots which will justify the deployment of a police helicopter gunship with advanced surveillance capabilities.

  • Vorkosigan Saga:
    • In A Civil Campaign: Byerly is an ImpSec agent tasked with observing the politics surrounding Lord Dono's claim to the countship, who chooses to actively encourage the rather extreme shenanigans Dono's rival attempts.
    • In Komarr, frustrated by the inherently reactionary nature of his job as an Imperial Auditor, Miles briefly ponders the probability of convincing the Emperor to deploy an Auditor Provocateur.
  • The State Counsellor novel contains enough of these to make Erast Fandorin swear he'll never take political cases again.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: Gwen is falsely accused of being one.
  • Sten: Mercury Corps uses this as a matter of course. Sten incites rebellion on Vulcan by fulfilling the Mig folk story of "one of their own" who will get out, return, and lead them to freedom. Especially effective because he is, and does.
  • In Martin Cruz Smith's novel Havana Bay (part of his Arkady Renko series), Renko travels to Cuba to investigate the mysterious death of a former colleague, and believes he has stumbled onto a plot to assassinate the President (referred to only as "The Commandante"). Renko is helpless to act as he believes he is about to watch a bomb explode that will kill the President, but instead he sees the conspirators discreetly rounded up and arrested. It is explained to him that the Commandante himself started the plot, as he does every few years as a security measure; "The Commandante didn't last this long by waiting for a conspiracy to come for him."
  • This is the Twist Ending of Simon Scarrow's Eagle Series novel Praetorian: after completing their undercover assignment in the Praetorian Guard, Cato and Macro demand that they be posted back to active duty in Britannia. Emperor's Claudius's secretary, Narcissus, is, for once, in no position to refuse, since Cato has realized that Narcissus himself founded "The Liberators", the underground group bent on toppling Claudius and ostensibly restoring the Roman Republic. Narcissus only did this as a handy way of keeping tabs on possible conspirators, but the organization took on a life of its own and grew beyond his control, a fact that will certainly doom him if Cato makes it known.
  • This is the main hat of the turncoat British Col. Christopher in Bernard Cornwell's novel Sharpe's Havoc. He has been sent to Portugal to assess the possibility that Napoleon's ambitious Marshall Soult will declare himself King of Portugal and break off from the French Empire; Christopher finds no such likelihood, but he encourages resentful officers of Soult's army to make themselves known to him, promising them British support if they rise up against "King Nicholas". Instead, he plans to betray their identities to Soult, and receive an immensely lucrative monopoly on the port trade in French-controlled Portugal.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • Nom Anor from the New Jedi Order series does this several times in different disguises, for the goal of weakening the galaxy for the Yuuzhan Vong invasion.
    • In the Hand of Thrawn duology, this is the role of "Vengeance", supposedly a grassroots organization of citizens outraged at the political crises du jour, but actually an Imperial infiltration team of maybe a dozen guys, posing as a massive organization. In addition to starting riots and otherwise stirring up trouble, they use high-tech stealth blasters and redirection crystals to make it appear that planetary forces (and in one case, Han Solo) are shooting protesters dead. In their final act on Bothawui, they go one step further, arranging for the planetary shields to be shut down, and infiltrating members onto selected parts of the multi-species fleet in orbit to incite an all-out war by bombarding the planet.
  • James Mowry, the hero of Eric Frank Russell's Wasp (1957), is sent down alone to an alien planet to stir up as much trouble as he possibly can.
  • The backstory of Riviera in Neuromancer who has a sexual fetish out of betrayal. He enjoys seducing women, turning them towards radical causes, then handing them over to the Turkish Secret Police and assisting in their torture.
  • Death on the Nile has one of these as the Red Herring.
  • On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett. Ross Perot and his executives are approached by a shady character who offers to get their colleagues out of an Iranian prison in exchange for a considerable amount of money to be paid into an escrow account (meaning the money isn't handed over till after the deal). After debating the matter, they decide to refuse because they suspect they're being set up for a bribery charge.
  • This is G's role in Agent G: Infiltrator from the Agent G series. After The Mole is eliminated from the International Refugee Society, he is sent to infiltrate the Carnivale. From there, he plays on the prejudices and ambitions of all the characters before turning them against one another. It kicks off an Enemy Civil War and while it's only a brief one, it allows him to accomplish his mission. He, notably, feels pretty awful about the whole thing at the end as psychotic or not, he'd befriended at least one of the Carnivale's agents.
  • In Red Seas, Red Skies of the Gentleman Bastard series, Locke and Jean are forcibly recruited by the Magistar of the city they're robbing to try to start a pirate uprising so he can he crush it in order to increase his personal power. Given both Locke and Jean are not only thieves but priests of thievery, this is literally against their religion—but so is dying.
  • Adolf Verluc in The Secret Agent is a Russian spy tasked with provoking a crackdown on British anarchists by getting them to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Unfortunately the anarchists in question are a lazy lot who don't fit the Russians' ideas of Bomb Throwing Anarchists. Verluc ends up converting his brother, a mentally disabled teenager, to violent anarchism to get him to do it.
  • The Prague Cemetery. The Villain Protagonist Simonini takes this role when the secret police use him to get some French radicals together for a bomb plot so they can be arrested. His main job however is the forgery of documents that his various employers use to 'prove' whatever conspiracy theory it's in their interest to pedal.
  • The mercenaries in Warbreaker turn out to be these for the Pahn Khal rebellion, driving a wedge between the two countries that oppressed them for centuries. They tricked Vivienna into thinking that war was inevitable, and their raids on supply caravans were weakening Hallaran's ability to wage war, rather than driving them to it.
  • Rebuild World: This is the modus operandi of the Artificial Intelligence Tsubaki who is The Remnant of the Old World Precursors. She was previously Famed In-Story as the Tempting Spectre for offering hunters deals to attack other hunters, before The Government changed that myth to something more convenient. Before her territory in the ruins is about to be assaulted, she prepares Evil Knockoff hunters to plant inside the enemy squads and sow distrust and infighting amongst the attackers after she’s disabled their communications.
  • Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs: In the Alternate Timeline Marie Route series, Olivia suffers from Demonic Possession by a Vengeful Ghost bent on destroying the kingdom, leading to her Playing Both Sides as The Chessmaster in multiple conflicts, and being The Corrupter for the Crown Prince Julius, while the public sees Olivia as a kind and generous saint.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Prisoner (1967): This trope causes the failure of the escape attempt in "Checkmate". Number Six works out how to identify the spies among the inhabitants of the Village, and thus is able to recruit a team of genuine prisoners. Unfortunately, on the night of the escape, the prisoners become paranoid that Number Six is an agent provocateur trying to incite them, so denounce him to Number Two.
  • Guerrilla: Some of the black protesters are paid by the police to start throwing stones at National Front members, giving them an excuse to break up the rally.
  • In a Law & Order episode, the back story was of a radical activist group at Hudson University (the show's Columbia/NYU expy) that had been infiltrated by these to get them to do more and more dangerous/hostile things and justify shutting them down completely.
  • Accused (2023): Derrick is coerced to act as one toward his friends by his FBI handler, the threat of serving twenty years in prison hanging over his head. With his suggestion and plan, they decided sabotaging the mill would be a good idea, all so the FBI can get them for this. Later, Naataani gets the same offer from the agent-if he helps them, their charges will be dropped. He refuses.

  • Out of the Blue, a thriller serial running in The BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play slot, concerned a police conspiracy that planned to use agents provocateur to turn a peaceful protest into a riot, thereby leading to an increase in police powers. Forewarned by the Honest Copper hero, the genuine protestors calmly but efficiently place the troublemakers under citizen's arrest, thereby proving they can be trusted to police themselves. Meanwhile the Honest Copper takes great pleasure in arresting the deep-cover ringleader in front of his associates in the movement, and making sure they know why.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Warhammer 40,000, This is the common tactic of Genestealer cults: Their aim is to incite rebellion and civil war across the whole world they're established on, which they do by infiltrating both sides. That way they can ensure the Arbites will shoot at peaceful demonstrators, as well as ensure most demonstrators won't be peaceful to begin with, and violence will escalate.
    • This is also one of the more famous specialties of the Alpha Legion according to the fluff. Famously provoking much of the Imperial Eastern Sector into riots during the Horus Heresy as a means of destabilizing the necessary supply lines for the Siege of Terra. However, in novels it is better shown by both the Night Lords Trilogy and the Blood Gorgons in the novel Flesh and Iron. On the tabletop, this is traditionally shown by a larger than average number of cultists.

  • King David sent one of his men to Absalom to give bad advice so that David could escape Jerusalem and prepare for war.

    Video Games 
  • You can take on this role in Knights of the Old Republic while infiltrating the Sith Academy. The protagonist can redeem a number of students back to the Light Side and also turn the head of the academy against their student before eliminating them both. This is a good way to weaken the academy significantly if you're a Light Sider.
    • In Star Wars: The Old Republic, the first two acts of the Sith Warrior storyline involve your master sending you on various missions to provoke the Republic into open war.
    • The Imperial Agent storyline in SWTOR takes it a step further and has an Ancient Conspiracy doing this to both sides of the war to get them to destroy each other.
  • Conner can do this in Assassin's Creed III with some crowds, turning them into unruly mobs during the parts taking place near The American Revolution.
  • This is basically what Viktor Marchenko is in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. He's working for the Illuminati in order to goad the Augmented Rights Coalition into terrorist attacks. He believes, once they've killed a bunch of innocent people, the Illumiinati will be able to pass their Human Restoration Act.
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, this is a favored tactic of the Thalmor-led 4th Era Aldmeri Dominion. Though the nation of a Long-Lived Mage Species, the Altmer (High Elves) suffer from an Immortal Procreation Clause which limits their birthrates (and is further hampered by rumors that they cull children with undesirable traits), leaving them at a disadvantage in drawn-out wars of attrition. As such, they prefer a Divide and Conquer strategy which includes setting their enemies up to fight and weaken one another ahead of Dominion takeover. Through the use of agents, they sow discord in rival nations. Most notably, they used these to goad the Argonians into first seceding from the faltering Empire then invading a Red Year-weakened Morrowind, home of their long time oppressors, the Dunmer (Dark Elves), stripping their Arch-Enemy Empire of two provinces at once.
  • Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky The 3rd: It's discussed how Erebonia's Chancellor Osborne sends his intelligence agents into neighboring countries to destabilize them until the point they ask the Erebonian army to come in to restore order, as his go-to means of "peaceful unification" with neighbors.

    Western Animation 
  • Captain Barca from Exo Squad is one, constantly enticing younger Pirates to rebel against Simbacca, while on Phaeton's payroll.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Discord, donning the disguise of The Ghost Grogar, tries to goad the other villains Queen Chrysalis, Lord Tirek, Cozy Glow and King Sombra (whom he himself reanimated) into combining forces and attacking Equestria for the sole purpose of granting the Mane Six a glorious victory just in time of Princess Twilight's accession to the throne. Predictably, the whole scheme goes pear-shaped when the villains perform far more competently than expected.

    Real Life 
  • While police sting operations (such as asking to buy some drugs hoping the suspected drug dealer would agree, then catching them in the act) bear a close resemblance to this trope, it's not quite this because the police aren't convincing the targets to do anything they weren't already doing prior to police involvement. However, the police have to be careful; crossing the line into persuading someone to commit a crime they otherwise would have been unlikely to is called entrapment, and depending on the jurisdiction can get evidence tossed or even cause the whole case to be dismissed. (Proving this has happened can be difficult for the defendant though.)
  • Throughout history, agent provocateurs have been sent inside a few social movements with the intent to destroy them and stir up controversy to help discredit the movement. As a result, they are often used as scapegoats when protests turn ugly. Wikipedia provides a list of proven and suspected cases here.
  • COINTELPRO was an American government program of Agent Provocateurs deployed between 1956 and 1971. Agents were sent to infiltrate the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, among others. J. Edgar Hoover's infiltration of the Communist Party USA is an interesting example of Epic Fail with this trope to the point of Reality Is Unrealistic. It turns out the US government pumped so much money and had so many informants in the CPUSA, it actually kept the organization from collapsing. Some of its cells in the 1950s apparently had more FBI agents than actual communists as members.
  • Some people have assumed that Tumblr has been the targets of these - not because the government wishes to discredit the social justice movement(s) prevalent on the site, but because trolls are simply bored and want to dismantle the movement(s) by invoking Poe's Law. One infamous example of this was #TakeDown4Chan, which went about as well as you would expect. It's been both claimed and suspected that the entire farce was started by 4Chan.
  • In the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, an investigation into Russia's use of this trope was opened to determine just how far it reached. Most of these "Troll Farms" utilize social media (e.g. Tumblr and Reddit), while others bought ad space on Facebook and other, more established sites, but all of them share the same goal of sowing discord in whatever ways they can.