Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups
Cover-ups appear in a variety of genres, but one thing many of them have in common is that they're often laughably implausible. So, here's a look into how cover-ups actually work and how they don't work, and how you can avoid some of the common pitfalls associated with cover-ups in fiction.
Table of Contents
- Ask yourself: Is it the kind of thing that anyone would actually would cover up?
- Ask yourself: Do the logistics work?
- Ask yourself: Is this how people actually cover things up?
- Ask yourself: Do the actions they're trying to cover up actually make sense in the first place?
- There is no such thing as a foolproof cover-up.
Ask yourself: Is it the kind of thing that anyone would actually would cover up?
Works that depict cover-ups, particularly in sci-fi and urban fantasy, often portray the government or some other shadowy agency as being ready to cover up and hide anything that doesn't mesh with our current understanding of reality or that might ruffle a few peoples' feathers. But is this the way it really works?
Certain Bigfoot proponents believe that the government is covering up the creature's existence for various reasons - one of which is that if the existence of a man-ape creature were made public, it would shake the foundations of Western religious belief and possibly result in panic and chaos. But wait a minute - if that's the case, then why aren't the same people covering up the various fossil hominids that have been discovered? There isn't much Bigfoot can do in that Australopithecus afarensis and so many more haven't done already. And it's not just fossil hominids that pose a problem here, either - each and every branch of science has produced any number of discoveries that would also have to be covered up to maintain this conspiracy. At this point, covering up Bigfoot for this reason would be like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun.
Every now and then, someone comes along claiming that a comet, meteorite, or rogue planet is going to hit the planet and that the government is covering it all up to avoid mass panic. But consider this - back in 2004, NASA scientists estimated that the asteroid Apophis might impact with Earth and cause major catastrophe, and were quite open and frank about it. (Fortunately, it's since been determined that Apophis won't hit Earth after all.) Also worth noting is that mass panic did not happen, which renders moot the argument that the government would cover up this type of thing due to the mass panic it would allegedly cause. (In fact, it's been shown time and again that mass panics along these lines simply do not happen.)
Another thing to ask yourself is whether or not the cover-up would even be worth the time, money, and resources they'd have to put into creating and maintaining it. Let's take the lab-created superflu in The Stand (at least, in the miniseries) for example - after it escaped lab containment and started infecting people, the government tried to keep its existence covered up despite the fact that it was spreading like the plague it was made to be. It would have been far more cost-efficient and useful to openly acknowledge the existence of the superflu and give people some guidelines on what to look out for and what to do to avoid spreading it any more than necessary - which is what typically happens in real life. Instead, we have nonsense like a SWAT team shooting a radio host reporting on the plague while on air - confirming to the listeners that something is indeed going on.
Let's compare the cover-ups surrounding BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The major difference here is that the while the oil spill and the chemicals used to clean up the oil spill were absolutely devastating to the immediate area, they were at least limited to the immediate area, which makes it relatively easy to keep people who don't or didn't live actually live there fairly ignorant of the whole situation.
The reason for keeping as much damage hidden from the public as possible had nothing to do with mass panic, either - it was all about the money. Proper cleanup/reparative work costs quite a lot of money, and a negative public opinion of a company makes people less likely to buy its products. Because most of the damage is limited to the coastal areas or under the water where the vast majority of people aren't going to see, it works. Today the water in the Gulf of Mexico looks pristine and clear despite the toxins that remain from the disaster, which is enough to fool the average tourist into thinking that it's clean and safe again.
In fact, cover-ups of environmental disasters are relatively common, and they generally work because the visible damage is limited to the disaster area itself, which most people aren't going to see for themselves. People in democratic countries will pitch a fit about a factory they can see putting off smog and/or dumping pollution into water, but if that factory is put in a country where the people have no power to protest, then you solve most of your problems because the people who could and would complain no longer see any reason to - even though the same toxins and pollutants are still being pumped out into the air and water.
Ask yourself: Do the logistics work?
In one RP, a character was set up as having been abused by her father. When asked why she hadn't called protective services, the character basically said that her father had paid them all off to look the other way.
Here's the problem: there are so many protective service organizations and shelters out there that if you paid each one a thousand dollars you'd still be paying well into the millions - and few people are going to be bribed by a mere thousand bucks anyway. (If the character's father was indeed worried that she'd try to run away and get help, it would've been a lot cheaper and a lot more effective to hire a few guards and lock the door...)
Remember the aforementioned people who claim that a comet or asteroid is going to hit the Earth? Many people believe that the US government is engaging in a mass cover-up to conceal UFOs, rogue planets, and other strange objects out in space. Now, this might be plausible if the folks at NASA were the only people with telescopes, but the fact is, they're not. In the US alone, amateur astronomers number in the hundreds of thousands - over 500,000, in fact. To give you an idea of how many people that is, that's about the population of Fresno, California. And that's hundreds of thousands of people who would be seeing and reporting/blogging/uploading videos of your incoming comet of doom or alien mothership. The idea that the government could pay off or otherwise silence that many people is laughable at best. Not all of them would accept bribes, and if close to half a million people suddenly vanished and/or dropped dead (particularly with such an obvious connection between them), people would take notice.
If one alien crashes in a sparsely-populated area where few people were around to really see what was going on and the party responsible for keeping this sort of thing covered up responds in a timely manner before everyone can whip out their cameras, then it's fairly plausible that a cover-up can be maintained for awhile. On the other hand, if you have an entire army of aliens attacking a very large city where there are thousands around to see it - forget it, it's hopeless. Ain't no way you can keep thousands of people silent, especially those who believed that the government was hiding the existence of aliens all along and now feel vindicated.
Ask yourself: Is this how people actually cover things up?
In Fictionland, cover-ups are frequently enforced by men in black suits. In reality, the solution is often far simpler - and far more insidious. BP didn't actively conceal or repress any information about the toxic and harmful chemicals that they sprayed over the Gulf to suppress the oil spill; they simply just didn't say what the chemicals (and their effects) really were and told workers not to wear protective gear in order to maintain the illusion that the chemicals were harmless. If they absolutely had to, they could have confined the responsibility on the lower rungs of the organization, leaving the higher-ups high and dry of any accountability. Thus they let the cover-up take care of itself, rather than than aggravate the situation by making it look big deal through trying to repress the information or silencing the witnesses.
Given how things have turned out for the company, it's safe to say BP did it very well.
In the 1970's, Ford Motors decided to try to compete with the German and Japanese companies that were putting low-cost compact cars onto the American market, and created the Pinto. Ford knew that the engine of the Pinto had a critical flaw that could result in the engine catching fire if the car was rammed from behind (the car's engine was in the back, rather than the front) even before the car was put onto the market. It would have cost $5-$11 per car to fix this flaw, but after doing the math, the company apparently determined that it would be cheaper to pay the customer lawsuits than it would be to fix the flaw. They simply denied that they knew about the problem - even under oath.
When studies in the 30's-50's started linking smoking to lung cancer, tobacco companies hired their own scientists to conduct their own "studies" to supposedly disprove the harmful effects of smoking, as well as started putting filters on cigarettes to create a "healthy" alternative.
By now you should be seeing a pattern: it's not always about strong-arming or bribing the opposition into staying quiet so much as ensuring that the information doesn't get out there to begin with - or when it does, creating confusion and controversy around the information. Ford didn't pay off lawyers not to represent victims and family members of the victims; they just claimed they never knew about the problem in the first place and paid the settlements. The tobacco companies didn't send assassins after the researchers who discovered a link between smoking and cancer; they just deliberately created doubt and the illusion that the problem had been fixed.
For our gal abused by her father, this would mean maintaining better security rather than paying off protective services to look the other way, and then if she escaped, try to play her off as mentally unsound and/or try to pin the blame on one of the guards.
This isn't to say that bribing doesn't happen - it does! But rather than bribing on a mass scale, bribes should be used sparingly, and only on individuals where they really make a difference. Bribing isn't a matter where you write out a single fat check and you're done; it's an ongoing deal where the one doing the bribing has to keep paying the bribed to stay quiet or look the other way. The briber also essentially puts the bribed into a position of power over xir - those bribes can potentially be used as leverage against the briber by the bribed, particularly if the bribed is smart enough to make it look like xe turned down the bribe, or doesn't care or realize that xe might go down, too.
Another effect of long-term bribing is that the recipient of the bribe will start getting accustomed to that extra money, which will make them reluctant to stop taking the bribes. After all, who doesn't enjoy an "all-expenses paid" vacation or fishing trip? Who can't think of something they could do with an extra thousand or so a month? How painful is it to consider how you'd get along with a thousand or so gouged out of your monthly funds?
Some bribes are offered as a carrot-or-stick deal - or in this case, silver or lead. Take the money, or get shot. Of course, this is only effective in cases where the target won't really be missed or noticed by anyone of consequence. Trying this someone who would - eg, a US politician - would simply be a great way to get the FBI up your butt. In the case of a politician, threatening blackmail might be more effective - it can require a lot of legwork to dig up enough dirt on the target, but it's more effective and less... well, suicidal than death threats or actually killing the target.
It must also be noted that it can even be very easy for people to spot those who are taking bribes - all they sometimes have to do is look for the people living beyond their means. People inexplicably owning or suddenly buying expensive or luxury items that they shouldn't be able to afford on the money they're legally making is often a sure sign of bribing.
Ask yourself: Do the actions they're trying to cover up actually make sense in the first place?
This is particularly applicable if you're writing a story set in the real world. If you look at the actions of the world at large, do they support or at least don't exactly disprove the existence of your cover-up... or do they point away from it?
For example, many conspiracy theorists claim that the US government is in the midst of a secret depopulation plan to wipe out 99% of the lower class. If a vaccine for a new illness has horrible side effects, it's never due to mistakes made in haste plus inadequate time to test the vaccine - they're deliberately poisoning the vaccines. If a poor district burns to the ground because the buildings were old and in terrible shape, it's not because of apathy bred by privilege and greed - it's because they were trying to kill the residents. School shootings have even been chalked up to depopulation plots.
But wait a minute - if the US government really wanted to put a curb on population growth, why not discourage people from having children in the first place by eliminating tax breaks for dependents while making access to birth control incredibly easy? Why do these vaccines only succeed in harming perhaps one in a few thousand recipients - and even then, fail to actually kill them? How is killing perhaps a dozen or so students every few years going to make a dent in a population of 313.9 million, where over two hundred babies are being born every half hour? Most importantly, why would the rich people deliberately kill off the poor people when it's the poor people who enable them to be rich in the first place by working under them in low-paying jobs whilst buying the goods and services offered by the rich people? If the poor people were all wiped out, how would the rich maintain their lavish lifestyles without the poor to support them? They couldn't!
So for your fictional conspiracy, whatever it is: ask yourself if it really could fit into the world your story is set in, or whether you're slapping it onto the world like a denim patch onto a silk shirt.
There is no such thing as a foolproof cover-up.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, three people can keep a secret... if two of them are dead. The people involved in cover-ups are still individuals with their own motivations and ideals. People get guilty consciences, or they decide there's something to be gained by coming forward to another party, or the stress of keeping a secret just gets to be too much. People also get sloppy and make mistakes, and sometimes tying up each and every loose end is simply impossible. And the more people that are involved in a cover-up, the higher the odds are that someone will slip up or spill the beans - and it potentially only takes one person to send the whole thing crashing down. There have been many instances of attempted cover-ups coming down thus.
A January 2016 paper published by Dr. David Robert Grimes shows just how fragile conspiracies and cover-ups really are, especially when large numbers of people are involved. An article that sums up the results of the paper, along with a link to the paper itself, can be found here. Grimes's numbers show that it's not a matter of if a conspiracy or cover-up gets exposed, but when - especially if you have hundreds or more people involved.
Also, check out:
Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment
The Basics Of Writing A Mystery Plot
Spies: A Few Things Writers & Roleplayers Should Know About Them
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Myths People Believe About Doomsday Believers
Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters
External Resources/Works Referenced
The American Association of
Amateur Astronomers - Astronomy Clubs and Societies
Asteroid Apophis Gives a Earth Close Shave in 2029
U.S. and World Population Clock
Mother Jones - The BP Cover-Up
Grist - The worst part about BP's oil-spill cover-up: It worked
Mother Jones - Pinto Madness
The Ford Pinto Case: The Valuation Of Life As It Applies To The Negligence-Efficiency Argument
Facts About the Lung Cancer Cover Up
The intractable cigarette ‘filter problem'