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It’s common nowadays for many different types of fictional, and non-fictional, works to speculate on the possible existence, operation, and further expansion, of hidden organizations such as ‘deep states’, secret branches of known organizations, and so on.

There are quite a few number of reasons why the leaders of such organizations would want to keep the secret show going but I am having trouble thinking what other reasons could motivate lower level personnel to do so, other than fear. The obvious rewards of exposure should more than outweigh any renumeration they could obtain.

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    $\begingroup$ What kind of low level personnel do you have in mind? Do note that there is often no need to inform low level personnel that they are in fact part of a vast secret organization. They're just doing some random job for a random organization, a company perhaps. $\endgroup$ – user85020 Apr 17 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ If low-level personnel is aware of the secrets of a vast secret organisation this organisation can no longer be secret. Ideally, low-level workers should have no idea that they belong to some secret organisation. One cannot reveal secrets if one is unaware of them. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 17 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ @user85020 In the typical course of things a vast bureaucracy will arise to manage all the affairs of the organization, even a low level secretary or clerk is bound to notice something off since the compartmentalization of information can never be perfect. $\endgroup$ – M. Y. Zuo Apr 18 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ They might believe in the cause! $\endgroup$ – kjetil b halvorsen Apr 18 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ If you want a real-world example for inspiration/research, I'll note that the Manhattan Project involved more than 100,000 people and was still kept secret. $\endgroup$ – Brian Apr 19 at 16:20

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The lower level folks think they are doing something else.

Secret purposes. Grand schemes. Yes the Elon Musks of the organization can concern themselves with these sky high ambitions. Lower level folks are interested in payroll, expense accounts, personnel - the unsexy administrative work of making things go. Any large organization will have a cover purpose which ideally will not be a front - a hospital as cover will actually take care of sick people, a pizza place as a cover will serve pizzas an so on.

The lower level people know that there are strategy meetings and doings they don't completely understand. They are uncurious, these middle managers. Their plates are full.

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    $\begingroup$ Strategic Division of Labour. $\endgroup$ – Williham Totland Apr 17 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ "The lower level folks think they are doing something else // a pizza place" doesn't lend itself to nefarious doings very well, unless the organisations sole goal is the secret chemical sterilisation of all pizza eaters perhaps, why not take a page from Hydra's book, subvert other clandestine organizations, in the the US all the low level boots on the ground think they're Russian spies, in Russia they all think they're US spies, same principle but offers more futility & flexibility in the use of your ow level grunts. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Apr 18 at 1:57
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    $\begingroup$ The pizza place would be leading kids into the basement for secret sex-parties hosted by Hillary Clinton. Google Pizzagate -- a guy was arrested trying to "save" them. Unless that's what you meant, you may want to change it to a burger shack? $\endgroup$ – Owen Reynolds Apr 18 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ @OwenReynolds - that is what I meant. $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 18 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ I can tell you 100% that I could not care less what my customer's core business is. I'm just the guy who takes care of the computers. Financial consulting, world domination, tennis ball manufacturing? I could not care less. $\endgroup$ – MechMK1 Apr 19 at 13:49
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They just don't care, because their outlandish schemes are so weird that regular people will see those as crackpottery.

Now a lot of what I am going to say next has to do with conspiracy theories and such. But let us consider, just for the sake of argument, that they would be true.

Imagine that aliens have really been deactivating nukes. Or that the Earth really is flat. Or that chemtrails are actually real and you can protect yourself with a tinfoil hat. Keep adding in here whatever your favorite conspiracy theory is... From AIDS being an artificial disease meant to eradicate black and hispanic people to the notion that the day actually has 96 hours.

How does society nowadays treat the proponents of such "theories"? See where I'm going? Any member of a secret organization that tried to leak secrets out would be treated just like a mad person. They might be famous in the internet for a few days and become a source of memes, but that's as far as they go.

Granted, some would-be detractors could be afraid to expose the conspiracy due to this. But many wouldn't be scared. They might actually make a living out of it, even get a cult following. You can make a lot of money selling books about conspiracy theories. You can also get rich on social media since YouTube still refuses to demonetize most conspiracionist material. It's just that this never actually harms the secret societies, so they just don't care. Like any major corporation nowadays, they see a high turnover at the lower levels of the company as a mere annoyance.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the 96-hour day link alone, introducing me to a whole new level of crackpot. It's a nice touch that it's a Florida man. $\endgroup$ – user85020 Apr 17 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ @user85020 - I assume it doesn't make any testable predictions, since there's a claim that there's a 1000$ reward to anyone who can disprove it. Seems like philosophical wanking, even pointing out that "your brain can't tell the difference". Kind of different from conspiracy theories, this seems more like Copenhagen vs. Many Worlds, except it's some crank / huckster that wants your money. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Apr 18 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ I am tickled to learn that the message of Time Cube has not been lost! $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Apr 20 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ On the flip side: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKUltra $\endgroup$ – chiggsy Apr 20 at 14:30
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  • Zealotry: the person really believes in the goals of the secret organization.
  • Belief in loyalty overrides desire to expose.
  • Mobility through promotion. Perhaps the low level thinks they will get to medium level and then high level.
  • Getting payoff in other ways like being part of a group or very individual reasons
  • Not wanting to rock the boat, its a paycheck type of attitude.
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Keep them ignorant. The guy who makes payroll has no need to know what the job description really entails, and so on.

Maintain a good cover story for their organization.

Then, put about, at irregular intervals, conspiracy theories about what the organization does. These theories should be both internally inconsistent and obviously false based on their own knowledge. The guy who makes payroll knows that they are not paying their staff in gold. Have carefully primed agents who will draw attention to and ridicule the theories.

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    $\begingroup$ I logged in this morning and noticed a -1 in my inbox. Apparently I hit the downvote button on my phone by mistake. Just wanted to let you know because I hate getting a downvote without explanation. Thanks for contributing and sorry about that! $\endgroup$ – Patrick McElhaney Apr 19 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ @PatrickMcElhaney Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Mary Apr 19 at 12:43
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What you are looking for is a Great Unifying Truth, an element of knowledge which fundamentally changes the value and moral limits of everyone who learns that it is true. There are many great truths but the best example I can think of is "E.L.E." from the movie Deep Impact. In the beginning of that movie, there are two kinds of people: those who do not know about the impending extinction level event, and the members of an international conspiracy focused on saving a small fraction of humanity from annihilation.
The members of that conspiracy do not keep silence out of fear. They are not extraordinarily well paid nor are their families being held hostage to assure their silence. They remain silent because each and every one of them, down to the stock boy who is organizing the canned food in the bunkers, knows that their silence is their only hope. The moment that the masses learn that an enormous meteor is approaching, their ability to save anyone drops dramatically. Every day that the secret remains, the bunkers improve and the supply stockpile grows. In such an environment, you could probably torture conspiracy members and they wouldn't let you in on what they know.

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Patriotism

This touches on the explanation in some previous answers, but I think it deserves bold letters. The rank-and-file pawns of the conspiracy believe that they are serving the interest of their nation, as defined by legitimate government agencies. Whatever goes on in that forbidden floor is classified for national security reasons, and revealing it would not just cost them their job and their clearance, it would lead to the disapproval by upright citizens everywhere.

They may or may not be able to get their book published. But afterwards? They can expect to be shunned by anybody except for a small group of fellow crackpots.

This might even be possible if the pawns do not believe that they*re working directly for the government. Mutter darkly about critical infrastructure. "Let it slip" that middle management is preparing "disaster recovery plans." Hold security awareness lectures.

If the front organization is new, talk about technical and organizational measures in accordance with the GDPR (or similar regulations elsewhere). Highlight that the front is going above and beyond in their compliance.

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    $\begingroup$ For a real-life example of this, at its peak "nearly 10,000 people were working at Bletchley Park and its outstations" (Wikipedia) during World War 2, and the secret was largely kept until 1974, with no apparent leaks during the war. The people keeping the secret were presumably motivated by patriotism, but also subject to the Official Secrets Act, so there would be criminal penalties if they went public. $\endgroup$ – kaya3 Apr 18 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ Some of the Bletchley Park personal anecdotes are remarkable. For example, two people who worked there later met and got married. Each of them only discovered their partner had also worked at Bletchley, when they visited it as tourists, decades later, and one of them told the tour guide that some of the information he gave was wrong! $\endgroup$ – alephzero Apr 18 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ The Official Secrets Act surely is the prime reason that the secret was kept. $\endgroup$ – chiggsy Apr 20 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ But here's the thing: the Official Secrets Act itself isn't secret. So everyone would know why someone could not talk about what they did or be vague about it because the people enforcing the rule were right out in the open, and it was related to an event (namely the war) that everyone also knew about. This is different from your standard conspiracy where the very existence of organization enforcing the secrecy, or that there are secrets being enforced, can't be known at all. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 20 at 14:39
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Once you're recruited, You're In Forever:

  • Committment: New members must commit a (often criminal) act that demonstrates their loyalty and/or an act that permanently marks them as a member.
  • Culpability: The secret organization knows something about you (like that act) that you don't want revealed.
  • Mystery: The full organization and it's powers are cloaked in secrecy but is regularly rumored and hinted to be much more expansive and powerful than most members ever see.
  • Culture: Rites and rituals and standards of behavior that reinforce the relative powerlessness of each member, demonstrate the benefits of loyalty, exercise the power of the organization, and openly (among members) punishes minor transgressions.
  • Observation: Minions are rumored to be frequently under observation and subject to occasional secret loyalty tests. Beware of minor transgressions or hesitations in loyalty!
  • Retribution: The secret organization will exact heinous revenge if you betray it. The organization has the (rumored) power to find and smash everyone and everything you value, and will never stop searching for them. There's no "reward" for exposure, only endless suffering for your loved ones.
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The rewards of exposure aren't all that rewarding

I guess the primary "obvious rewards" would be book deals, television appearances and the like (unless I'm missing something more "obvious"), but to really capitalise on those you'd probably need to commit a lot of time to it (likely giving up your day job, which may even pay more), there isn't much of a guarantee that people will care much or believe you and people will lose interest soon enough (so it's only temporary profit). You also need to want that fame (or need the money), which could potentially be detected and avoided in any new members that are recruited to a reasonable degree.

If you try to go the route of exposing their crimes to the government, the most you can probably hope for is not being charged yourself. Unless you want to opt for blackmail, but that's a whole other can of worms.

Not to mention anything you yourself did for the organisation may affect your future career outside the organisation and/or your freedom.

Then there's the question of how much information you actually have to expose. The top-level members will probably have some huge secrets, but what the low-level members know is probably a lot more limited, not that extreme and less believable if they're not a prominent figure in society (which would probably typically be the high-level members instead).

Even if you just contrast this against the direct benefit of being a member, exposing them already doesn't make too much sense. Then add all the reasons mentioned in the other answers and it really doesn't make sense.

The most compelling reward is likely morality and wanting people to know about it, but the organisation has already failed if you recruit people motivated strongly by this.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer. In addition to the points made here, it is very likely that exposure won't achieve anything - because the public either won't believe you, or won't care. In the current year, Snowden-style revelations are a Page 4 story that elicits a yawn from most people. The thriller movie trope of the public revelation bringing a secret conspiracy down due to an outraged public is decades out of date. $\endgroup$ – tbrookside Apr 19 at 11:56
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Speaking as a member of a formerly-secret conspiracy that remained secret for far longer than it had any right to, what seems to work best is loyalty. If your low-level members believe in the goals of the organization and have been personally recruited by higher-level members, they're going to do their best to keep things secret.

(Seriously. It's virtually unheard-of for a group of 4000+ people to keep something secret for five years.)

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The knowledge that they don't have enough to make anyone believe the organization exists. There have already been enough fake people come forward that any real whistle-blower will just get laughed at.

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You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/you-can-catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-with-vinegar


What sounds like a better recruiting tool:

Hey, wanna sweep the floors at our headquarters where we're designing an orphan crushing machine?

or

Hey, wanna sweep floors and get paid $1/hour more than average?


Even if some employees hear that you're designing an orphan crushing machine they would be hard-pressed to connect to the dots and verify such a claim.

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Ask what do they have to gain? If they are made to believe that they have a lot to gain they may easily conclude that what happens to someone else doesn't matter as long as it doesn't happen to them.

No offense to any readers of German descent, but the German citizens had to know what was going on during the Nazi regime. And while many of them may not have agreed with what was going on, too few of them actually did anything about it. An overwhelming, armed "security" force is a good reason to look the other way, but throw in that it greatly benefits you (monetary gain, lifestyle improvement, etc.) has been enough to make lots of people throughout history do horrible things on a mass scale.

Throw in a little racism and a pinch of brain washing (propaganda) for seasoning and you've really got something. Don't see why it wouldn't work in a corporate arena or secret organization.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that many Germans knew that "bad things" were happening to Jews deported eastward. They might not have known that a specific train they had seen would go directly to a specific extermination camp where many Jews went directly from the ramp to the gas chambers, but they knew things were bad at the end of that train journey. And soldiers knew (and did talk) about what happened behind the frontlines. Civilians in the Reich might have focussed on their own misery with the bombing raids, but that was being in denial. (Source: Talking to various elder Germans when I was younger.) $\endgroup$ – o.m. Apr 18 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ Again, I mean no offense to anyone of German ancestry. But I'm guessing that's why I got downvoted? $\endgroup$ – Len Apr 18 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ The question was about keeping a secret. The Holocaust might have been secret in many details, but the broad outlines were visible for anyone who wanted to see. So your example does not fit. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Apr 19 at 5:04
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhineland_massacres Date: 1096 "The massacre is seen as the first in a sequence of antisemitic events in Europe which culminated in the Holocaust" They absolutely knew that it was a one way trip. Pick any of Gobbel's speeches. If you can stomach it. They kept trying, for a thousand years until they had the infrastructure to get the job done. $\endgroup$ – chiggsy Apr 20 at 14:16
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This is sort of a low level answer, but belonging to something bigger than themselves motivates people to commit a great number of actions. Furthermore, belonging to some secret-society, even at the lowest level, makes you different from everyone who isn't. Essentially, a secret-society is tantamount to a cult.

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Thinking of the past, think about slavery. There were networks of people in the north america running underground railroads. They kept it secret, because they believed the slavery was wrong and so they kept information about its location and its members secret so they could keep helping other escape.

Sure the fear of getting caught, in the south, existed but the people doing it were motivated by helping people.

I am not sure how big the organization was, but in the North they were free to operate with no legal consequences.


Also if one county is being occupied by another, the native people would keep resistance movements a secret to try and free themselves. In the united states, 1700's, long before we declared war(war for independence) hundreds of people were enlisted. We had the minute men, and etc. Obviously any citizen who wanted freedom kept the information from the enemy.

So freedom is a powerful motivator.

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