So in my world, a government and city was created to protect the rich from the 'outsiders'. In reality, these people are just survivors of a disease, and are completely normal. All the original people living in the city are aware of the fact, but want to stay in this little bubble of wealth, monopoly, and prosperity. So they teach their children that the outsiders are savages, and many measures are taken to stop them from seeing the outside or from the outsiders getting to close. As those children grow up they would still not know the truth. But there is a branch of government that deals with the outside. I have the military figured out. My question is, how could that branch of government exist after many generations and keep the secret that most of the population doesn't know about? Maybe it's passed down through family, but even then wouldn't someone reveal the truth? (My story does not involve the truth being exposed by one of them, if that matters)

Edit: The government of the city is not corrupt, if that matters. They want what is best for the people inside; this is, however, at the expense of the people outside.

Edit #2: What if the people involved with outside affairs were completely removed from the city, and their children grew up to follow their role? Like a town on the city's border that holds only those people.

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    $\begingroup$ "How could a government keep a secret for hundreds of years?" Badly. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2020 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds a bit like the plot of Aeon Flux $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jan 24, 2020 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Oh no I was hoping that this idea hadn't been used before! In my story, the main characters are the people on the outside who don't even know about the city. Is that the case with Aeon Flux? $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2020 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Watch the movie! Anyway, the issue is never whether an idea has been used before: it's what you do with the idea to make it your own! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jan 24, 2020 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 no one is going to rebel against it in my novel, it's just something that exists. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 4:00

4 Answers 4


The premise makes some assumptions about human nature that I think are overly generous. Historically – even without a wall – all it takes to make Group A believe that Group B are savages is for Group A to tell their kids that.

It doesn't matter if there's evidence that Group B are just normal humans. Members of an oppressive society will believe almost anything, and ignore almost any evidence, before they will admit they've been the bad guy their whole lives.

And that goes double where there's a physical wall. Even if someone from the city says "I went outside, and they're completely nice people", that person will simply be ignored. People will say they were duped, or that they're a spy, or whatever it takes to not have to believe the truth.

In fact, if the government tried to cover up the truth, that would make people more likely to believe it, because it would offer them the excuse that the government had tricked them into being the bad guys.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you that makes a lot of sense! $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 2:11

Without some form of mind control or memory alteration, it can't. The greater the number of people who are aware of a secret, the shorter the period of time that secret can successfully be kept.

David Grimes wrote an oft-cited paper in PLOS One in 2016 that developed a model to estimate how long a conspiracy could successfully operate without it being revealed, based on the number of participants involved in it. The model makes three assumptions: that any leak, intentional or accidental, blows the conspiracy, that participants are generally dedicated to keeping it quiet, and that there's no outside party actively seeking to expose it (so any exposure has to come from within the ranks of the conspirators themselves). The model used data from real conspiracies (such as the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment and the NSA program Snowden exposed) to make estimates as to probabilities, and then compared it to the number of people necessarily involved in popular conspiracy theories (Moon Landing Hoax, Vaccine Conspiracy, etc) to calculate how long that number of people could keep a secret.

We'll use the vaccine conspiracy as an example. It assumes that 22,000 people would be have to be in on it (namely the CDC and WHO), and they could be expected to keep it secret for maybe 35 years. Note that's 22,000 people total, over the entire timespan. However, if you included the major drug companies as being in on it, that's 714,000 people and the best you could hope for is a bit over three years.

Grimes then worked the other way: if you wanted to keep a secret known for a given length of time, with a 95% probability of it staying a secret, how many people over that period of time know about it? He only went up to 100 years, but his calculation was that the maximum number of people who could be in on the conspiracy over that time was 125. That's 125 people over that 100 year timespan, not 125 at any given time (unless all the conspirators are participants for that entire century, of course).

Given the parameters you indicated in the question, there's no way the secret can be maintained, with active participants, for the length of time you want. If the military force and government officials who do know the secret number 2,500 or more, your best case is that it lasts 5 years before the probability of it being blown starts increasing.

Grimes includes a chart for a conspiracy with 5,000 people involved. If there's only a 0.0005% chance in a given year that someone will blab or make a mistake that reveals the secret, after 30 years there's 50/50 odds it's blown, increasing to 90% after 100 years even though the conspirators may be dead or dying.

If there's a 0.005% chance someone screws up, after 20 years there's essentially 100% certainty it's revealed. If there's a 0.05% chance in any given year someone screws up, it won't last more than five years.

How confident are you that your conspirators can keep a perfect record for more than 99.9995% of the time?

  • $\begingroup$ So what do you recommend I do, because it's vital to the story that both most of the people inside and outside the city don't know about each other? $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2020 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Is this assuming modern technology, access to the Internet, etc.? Because in a completely isolated country it could last longer. Look at North Korea, there are a lot of people there that flee to South Korea but the environment there is saturated with propaganda and they don't have a lot of options for alternate points of view (and they've only been isolated ~70 years). Plus in the original example the people founding the society wanted to be isolated in the first place so they have more reason to lie about the outside world. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2020 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the government keep the people outside from attaining modern technology or getting too close. This is one of the things that group controls. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 2:14
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandraEagle, don't keep it a secret. Use the traditional method that's caused people to irrationally hate other groups for no particularly good reason based on lies, half-truths, and illogical statements. You know, religion. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 7:46

Short answer, despite there being plenty of novels on the topic of secret societies, it's probably a stretch too far to posit the existence of a group started hundreds of years ago, during which time the existence of that group (at least) has not become common knowledge.

Dan Brown put it this way in the words of Professor Langdon (I paraphrase): "The Freemasons aren't a secret society. They are a society with secrets". You know the Masons exist. Masonic temples abound to this very day. Depending on the region, people will freely admit they're Masons. What they won't say is what goes on in their temples. Part of their mystique is that everyone knows about them, but nobody really knows much about them. More to the case in point, Mossad exists. It's an arm of the Israeli government that performs a number of black ops, especially relating to infiltrating Palestinian and Lebanese terror groups, providing intelligence and counter-intelligence, and capturing or killing top operatives. Who's in it now? What are they doing now? We don't know. And for Mossad, there are ultimately more advantages to this level of public awareness than there are in being totally unknown. You can use Mossad's name in psy-ops. You can use Mossad's past exploits, once they're old enough not to risk any current operatives or operations by declassifying them, in news stories and propaganda. You can't do this with a group whose name nobody knows and cannot know.

Your hypothetical scenario is equal parts Divergent Series and Men In Black, and would probably draw from a combination of the techniques used:

  • Physical containment of the people from whom you're keeping secrets, in such a way that they want to be confined (i.e. everything more than a few miles outside the city is a toxic wasteland nobody's ever come back from),
  • Independent funding of the organization, usually by hiding it under some top-secret line item for a larger branch of the government's military R&D or intelligence community budgets,
  • Control of the media, to suppress reports of anything the group may have been involved with that could otherwise become public knowledge, and
  • Control over any government agents who have to know about the group, usually but not always along the lines of keeping the agents' families hostage in their own lives, with standing orders to "disappear" the agent's entire extended family if the agent spills the beans.

Even with these measures in place, keep in mind that the guys actually calling the shots in Divergent are totally external to the city; nobody inside the city has any clue what's really going on until one of them passes the test. And in MIB, the problem is solved with technology; anyone with any physical proof or even a credible story about aliens living on Earth is tracked down, has their memory modified and any physical evidence confiscated.


Untouchable caste.

The outsiders are thought to be dangerous and dirty. In other societies, dealing with dirty things (like corpses, or meat) is relegated to persons in a hereditary untouchable caste. For the citizenry, mingling with or interacting with Untouchables is taboo except in certain strictly sanctioned ways.


Untouchability, in its literal sense, is the practice of ostracising a minority group by segregating them from the mainstream by social custom or legal mandate. The term is most commonly associated with treatment of the Dalit communities in the Indian subcontinent who were considered "polluting", but the term has also been loosely used to refer to other groups... Traditionally, the groups characterized as untouchable were those whose occupations and habits of life involved ritually polluting activities, such as fishermen, manual scavengers, sweepers and washermen.[2]

Caste is hereditary. You find a mate within your caste and your children are born into your caste.

Your untouchables know that the outsiders are people. But they themselves are outsiders of a sort, although within the city walls. Possibly they treat the persons outside the walls as untouchable and so feel a sense of power and superiority which helps them accept their lot within the walls. They do not tell the secret to people outside the caste because the higher caste folks do not speak with them. The Untouchables speak a sort of pidgin among themselves which is hard to understand. And even if a citizen broke the taboo and paid close attention, the Untouchables have a lot of other unusual beliefs, secret knowledge and myths. The truth about the Outsiders gets lost in all the other weird stuff that comprises the Untouchable worldview.

The Untouchables are also strange looking and strange acting; more inbred than the rest of your city dwellers which explains some of their unusual thinking.


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