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Feed the Mole

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You have The Mole on your team. Perhaps you even know who they are, feeding information to the Big Bad, or (if Divided We Fall) to The Rival. How convenient! You can now spread whatever (dis)information you want spread! You may even manage to trigger an Enemy Civil War.

This trope is when a group that has been infiltrated by The Mole ends up exploiting that Mole by deliberately spreading information, or more usually disinformation. There are at least two reasons why they'd do this:

  • Someone in the group thinks there's a mole but doesn't know who it is, so they devise a Secret Test by picking out individuals and giving each one different information. The idea is that the loyal members will keep it to themselves, whereas the mole will pass it on to their boss on the other side. By watching what the boss does, the one who started the test can then gauge which information the boss heard and therefore deduce who the mole is. Feeding different stories to different suspects is a classic way to determine which, if any of them, is the mole.

    Alternatively, or additionally, seeing which of your enemies reacts as if in possession of a piece of false information determines which of them is the mole's boss, if that is unknown.
  • Someone in the group knows who the mole is but hasn't exposed them yet (if they ever will). They simply arrange matters so that the mole ends up passing on bogus information to whomever they work for. The information is always to the other side's detriment. Perhaps it's useless or designed to throw them off the scent. Perhaps they'll act on it, in which case they may get caught in a trap or be led to their deaths. Perhaps, if they're getting more than one report, the information confuses them and thus buys the group some time as their enemies (it's usually an enemy) try to work out which of their contradictory reports are true and which aren't.

    Valid and accurate information that nevertheless causes useful reactions is another route, one that tends to prolong the usefulness of the mole.

A "Mole" who willingly feeds the information you want is a Double Agent. A Mole who is Becoming the Mask may slowly move to being a Double Agent — though if the mole doesn't know you have twigged, there is the little problem that they will choose their own misinformation. Feed The Mole may lead to a You Have Failed Me moment for the unlucky mole concerned, if their boss ever figures out what they did. The boss may even accuse the mole of doing it of their own free will, when really the mole had no more idea what was going on than the boss did.

On the other hand, if the Big Bad figures out or guesses that you know about the mole, he will know that you are feeding him information, false or manipulative, and therefore what you want him to think. If counterploys start forming on each side, this might tumble over into I Know You Know I Know and a Gambit Pileup may ensue.

Note that this isn't exclusive to the hero; the Big Bad, The Dragon, or The Rival could just as easily manipulate The Mole in this fashion. The Chessmaster and the Magnificent Bastard are quite likely to use this tactic to confuse or to trick the hero. If that's the case, then the tactic will generally be condemned more strongly by the audience as playing dirty than if the hero had used it, obviously because the audience is usually (Designated Hero notwithstanding) on the hero's side, or because it's more likely an opponent will be more ruthless by, for example, using it to get the hero killed. Might make for a good Reveal when the hero or the villainous mole says "My God, What Have I Done?"

This is one of The Thirty-Six Stratagems, making it Older Than Feudalism. Compare Bluff the Eavesdropper and Staging the Eavesdrop.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • During Eren's first outside-the-walls expedition in Attack on Titan, Commander Smith, suspecting there might be a mole in his unit, gives different members different information regarding Eren's position in the formation. When an attack, indeed, comes, Smith is able to narrow the suspects down considerably (and eventually expose The Mole) by comparing its direction with his earlier misinformation.
  • In Blood+, Amshel tells Solomon Diva will be at Christina Island to shoot a video in a week. The latter told Red Shield, who arrived on the island. By that time, Diva left the island. James was waiting for them to attack.
  • Kanta of Desert Punk, when asked to guard a town about to become an oasis from the Edo River Gang, starts partying around the village and gains a Professional Butt-Kisser in the process. When it's revealed said ass-kisser was a spy, Kanta explains that he knew this, and lead the spy to believe the villagers would all be defending the side of the village facing an abandoned city, when they were really defending the side facing the open desert. Unfortunately for Kanta, the Edo River Gang were smart enough to spot bad intel, and attacked from the city anyway, forcing him to fight them all himself.
  • Irresponsible Captain Tylor: When Harumi fails to kill Tylor, he directly proposes this trope so she won't be executed for her failure. Amazingly, it works and keeps her superiors more and more interested in Tylor, who is careful enough to not give more information than necessary to avoid endangering the Soyokaze's crew.
  • In Mobile Suit Crossbone Gundam: The Steel Seven, the heroes become aware that Europa is an unwitting mole for the enemy, because the Big Bad can read her mind whenever he wants. As a result, they take the prudent measure and lock her up (at her own request). Then when Tobia comes in with her meal, he tells her exactly where they're going, and why they think the item they're after is in the area. When Europa protests this action, Tobia smirks and replies "What guarantee is there that I'm telling you the truth?" As it turns out, he actually was telling the truth, but the Big Bad took the bait and didn't trust his words. When they do end up meeting and fighting, the Big Bad had figured out the heroes' location through other evidence.
  • One Piece: Kin'emon manages to do this by complete accident. He manages to utterly derail the Arc Villain's plan and force The Mole to tip his hand by telling said mole incorrect information about a planned rendezvous... because he, and only he, completely misread Yasuie's message, and was the one to tell said misinterpretation to the mole.
  • In Vinland Saga the mole is given information that the group would find no harm in giving to the enemy the king. This was a test to see if the person was a mole. Simultaneously they use it to get the enemy to do what they want.

    Comic Strips 
  • In 9 Chickweed Lane, Edda's grandmother tells how she was sent to sing for German prisoners of war to get them to give up sensitive information to her. They pretty quickly figure her out, but continue to feed her information simply because they like her. When she finds out, she asks if the information was correct. The answer is somewhat ambiguous.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In 13 Rue Madeleine, Allied intelligence realizes that a Nazi spy has infiltrated their organization. Their plan is to feed him all the false information on the planned invasion (telling him it will come through the Netherlands) and then send him there on a mission so he can pass it along. Then, in an incredibly stupid move, they tell one of his fellow spies that the other agent is a Nazi spy. The agent betrays himself by staring at the Nazi agent, who then cuts the static line before their drop, leaving the good agent to fall to his death and betraying their entire plan.
  • The mole himself suggests this approach in The Departed. Of course, since he's in charge of the search it's all just part of keeping the other cops off his scent.
  • The Guns of Navarone does a variation where one of the loyal men is wounded, and the team medic can't treat him as he is. The team realize he'd get better treatment as a POW, and then Captain Mallory feeds him false information on their plans in case he is interrogated.
  • The Imitation Game: An unusual example in that the mole is fed true information. In the film, MI6 uses the mole to pass on information they want the Soviets to have but Churchill is unwilling to share. (Churchill was paranoid about sharing information with the Soviets, despite being allies.)
    • Subverted, when Stalin refuses to believe it.
  • In the original Police Academy film, Copeland and Blankes intimidate Barbara into asking Mahoney where the shore leave party is being held. Mahoney realizes fairly quickly that Barbara is too introverted to party, so he gives him the name of a tough Gay Bar.
  • In The Rainmaker, Rudy discovers that the opposing legal team have tapped his phone. Instead of removing the tap, he stages a fake conversation which leads his rival to accuse one of the jurors of conspiring with him, thus making his rival look foolish and removing a potentially troublesome juror.
  • This is how George Smiley finally narrows down the identity of the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He arranges for the mole, one of an increasingly-shorter list of suspects, to catch wind that the man who knows of his existence — if not his identity — has resurfaced and wants to reveal the information to the Circus. That causes the mole to request an emergency meeting with his Soviet handler at the prearranged safehouse, where Smiley is waiting for them.

    Radio 
  • X Minus One: In "Project Trojan", Phase Three was identifying a German mole (Gogarty) and "losing" files connected to an unworkable Death Ray. Because they were only "losing" some of the files, it would look as if the lack of information meant the Allied powers had developed a solution.

    Video Games 
  • The Blue Sun mod for 7.62 High Caliber adds a mission strand with the Sagrada police department, and one of the relatively early missions involves identifying a mole by telling two different suspected officers a different location where they'll be transporting a briefcase of money and seeing which town has mercenaries ready to attack.
  • A small questline in the fan-made The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind mod pack Tamriel Rebuilt centers around the Enforced Cold War between the Mages Guild and House Telvanni, and both sides, regardless of which one you take, have a quest where you have to help root out a suspected mole/leak from the other side this way. The Telvanni version has you baiting out four suspected moles with "gossip" about a defecting Guild mage (with a different story/mage for each suspect), then laer checking if any of the "defectors" have suddenly disappeared. The Guild quest has you spread a rumor about a fake expedition to one of their agents within the Telvanni to see if they've been flipped. For extra points, the spy for both quests is the same person.
  • Planescape: Torment has an In-Universe example with the story of Vilquar; the Githzerai figured out he had sold them out to the Illithid, so they tricked him into believing that they had given up on their rebellion to fool the Illithid into becoming complacent, as well as prevent future treason by showing how the Illithid kill Vilquar upon getting the bad info.

    Webcomics 
  • Average Joe is likely showcasing a version of this, as most of the strip is a prolonged flashback story being told by The Hero to The Mole — whereby the Hero has recently noted (not to the mole) that he knows she's working for the unknown enemy...
  • Girl Genius: It's spelled out more explicitly in the print novelizations than the original comic, but Klaus and Gil Wulfenbach do this with both the noble-family students/hostages on board Castle Wulfenbach, and Gil's manservant Ardley Wooster, who is a British spy.
    • Explicitly done after the Time Skip:
      Gil: So, I've been setting traps. Discrete "useful bits of information" to each suspected traitor. I'm sure you know the drill. By now, the attackers at our "completely undefended" outer base should be all sorted out.
  • A Modest Destiny shows that you can use this even on a non-mole ditz, as seen when Gustav is deliberately given bad information so (when asked politely by a disguised villain) he'll accidentally lead the enemy into a trap.
  • Subverted in The Trenches: Q knows there is a mole in the company, leaking secrets to their game's user base, in particular what they plan on doing about an Infinite Gold Bug that slipped through QA and got released. He tells each of the QA testers something different, and then fires Marley when his version goes public. The subversion is that Marley isn't the mole, Cora is; Isaac figured out what was going on and leaked Marley's info himself. He did this for two reasons: A) to protect Cora, who ultimately had the users' best interest at heart, and B) to punish Marley, the QA tester who let the bug go live in the first place by getting too stoned to do his work.

    Western Animation 
  • The Bots Master: When Paradigm finds out a mole planted by The Hero, he uses it to give Zulander misleading information.
  • In Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. Hulk is wise to Skaars duplicity and allows him tidbits of information to give to Leader, hoping to win Skaar over in the end.
  • Men in Black: The Series: An alien in the guise of an human woman once infiltrated MiB and gains the confidence of Frank the Pug. J and K cottoned on pretty quickly and provided Frank with bogus information. Frank was genuinely saddened when he learned of her intentions.
  • She-Ra: Princess of Power: In "Birds of a Feather", Kowl's cousin Red-Eye seeks employment at the Horde and Shadow Weaver uses a spell to enable Red-Eye to see and hear what Kowl does. She-Ra takes advantage of this to give the Horde misleading information.
  • In Skunk Fu!, a ninja monkey who pretends to be kicked out of the mountains by Baboon so he can spy is given bad info from the animals in the valley about when they'll attack next and who'll be leading to report back to Baboon.
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks: In "The Spy Humongous", a Pakled claiming to be a refugee is quickly deduced by Ransom and Kayshon to be a spy... and a quite inept one at that, taking photos of himself instead of the Cerritos and asking obviously suspicious questions, like asking to see the warp core and wanting all their codes. Ransom and Kayshon decide to play along and take him to see "classified" locations like the gift shop and the juice bar. He gives them the slip... only to mistake an airlock for the bathroom and flush himself out into space. He survives, but is transported to Pakled Planet at the end, where he triumphantly reveals himself to be a spy to "Janeway" (actually Captain Freeman). Freeman then tricks him to reveal that the Pakleds are building a bomb they plan to drop on Earth.
  • Star Wars Rebels: Grand Admiral Thrawn says in "An Inside Man" that he plans to do this once he finds out who The Mole is, now that he knows there is one. At the end of "Through Imperial Eyes", now that he knows who the mole is, he tells Yularen that he can start actually doing it.

    Real Life 
  • The British planted a spy in Ben Franklin's staff in Paris. When Franklin found out, he proceeded to send bogus information to him, and thus back to London.
  • More or less all the German spies which were captured in World War I suffered this fate, if they didn't defect or end up executed.
  • Again in WWII, every spy Nazi Germany sent to England was caught and turned into a double agent. The Nazis never caught on, and were fed false information for most of the war, with occasional bits of true but harmless information sprinkled in (referred to as "chicken feed") to keep the double agents credible in their German handler's eyes. The second time around was even easier since they'd got moles of their own: most prominently one of the instructors in the spy school, as well as one of their most favored spymasters (who had joined the Nazis first expressly to feed them disinfo).
  • The SIS (British) spy Kim Philby was accused of being The Mole for the KGB (Soviets). He was exonerated, but still not completely trusted. Then he came under greater suspicion, and he had to leave the SIS, and defected to the KGB for real. The thing was, the KGB were quite suspicious that he was a Fake Defector and they didn't trust him either, which prompted Philby to regain contact with the SIS in an effort to actually become a Fake Defector. In the end, since neither side trusted him any more, they embraced this trope, making him essentially a glorified messenger boy.
  • On a more mundane note, this is a good way to quickly filter out your junk mail. Any time you fill out a form where your information will most likely be sent or sold to companies that send junk, give a false name (or at least a different form of your own). If anything comes addressed to the name, you can throw it away without opening it. Discussed one of Wil Wheaton's blog posts: Goddammit, Popular Science. You Had One Job. He used the fake name "Awesomeface Wheaton" when subscribing to Popular Science and found his information had been shared with a third party. Sites like Sneakemail provide a similar service for email.
  • A few celebrities have done this when they've suspected their publicists were leaking stories to the press. They'd just make up a fake story, and if it ended up in the media...
  • By early 1942, the US had already broken the Imperial Japanese Navy's JN-25 codes, and they found out that they were planning an operation around "Objective AF". Since the lettered code names assigned to objectives were separate from the JN-25 code itself, they didn't actually know where "AF" was, but from context suspected it could be Midway Island, containing a strategically important submarine base and airfield. Certain of their intel but needing an example to show to the brass, they had their base at Midway begin sending false messages saying that its distillation plant had been damaged and that they were short on water. When Japanese messages began stating that "AF" was short on water, the US had their proof, giving them the element of surprise that the US utilized to great effect at the Battle of Midway that June. The result was the loss of four Japanese carriers to one American one, and from that point forward, Japan was on the defensive in the Pacific War.
  • Subverted in the 1960 U2 Crisis. The Soviets shot down and captured an American spy pilot, Gary Powers, who was flying over Soviet airspace. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev originally gave the impression that they had no idea exactly what the plane was and were merely annoyed that it had been in their airspace without their permission, whereas in actual fact Powers had told them everything. The Eisenhower administration, relieved due to thinking they'd gotten off the hook, claimed it had been a weather plane. The Soviets then revealed that they knew what the plane was for all along, making the Americans look like liars as well as spies.
  • Paramount used this trope to identify Gene Roddenberry as the leaker of scripts for the Star Trek movies. Copies of the almost-final draft of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock were distributed to all those entitled to have them, including Roddenberry, with subtle differences in each copy. When bootleg copies were circulated at conventions, the studio was able to determine pretty quickly that they had been copied from the one distributed to Roddenberry, who was actively trying to make the studio backtrack and not let Kirk actually destroy the Enterprise. But by then it was too late to do anything to Roddenberry.
  • In 2019, Coleen Rooney, wife of soccer superstar Wayne Rooney, suspected another soccer wife of leaking her private stories to the tabloids. She tested the theory by making her social media private to everyone but the suspect, then posting false stories and seeing if they spread. When they did, she made a big public accusation, which of course became huge tabloid fodder again.
  • Copyright traps, either in the form of "phantom settlements" in terms of published maps, or "fictitious entries" for published dictionaries and encyclopedias, serve this function. Reference works like these are inherently based on factual information, and you can't copyright the true definition of a word or the actual layout of a city. So, to prevent lazy publishers from simply copying your reference, the idea is to plant a trivial bit of false information in your own work — a fake street in a big city, or a ghost word in a dictionary that has no true meaning. If you find the same bit of planted info in a rival publisher's work, you could use this as credible legal evidence that they are copying your work, rather than doing their own research. This actually came up in a legal case regarding Trivial Pursuit, when a fake trivia entry about Columbo's first name, inserted as a copyright trap into The Trivia Encyclopaedia by Fred L. Worth, was used as a question in the game; the verdict said, in effect, that taking extensively from one source might well be plagiarism, but taking from numerous sources, and comprehensively changing the way the material was used, meant this was instead research, and thus didn't constitute a crime. Worth pursued his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied cert (i.e., declined to hear the case) in March of 1988.


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