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Plausible Deniability
Kritzinger: That we have undertaken to systematically annihilate all the Jews in Europe? That possibility has personally been denied to me by the Führer!
Heydrich: And it will continue to be.

Plausible deniability is a condition under which a person or persons' culpability might be denied, or at-least mitigated, by pointing to a situation that either leads them to take the action they took, or to deny that they were responsible in the first place.

According to The Other Wiki, the term was, "coined by the CIA in the early 1960s to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that illegal or unpopular activities by the CIA became public knowledge." The scope of the term has broadened since then.

While intended in the context of more serious affairs, the term can refer to any number of trivial matters. Speaking at San Diego Comic-Con, prolific comic book writer, Len Wein explained the lack of original films, and the large number of sequels, prequel and spin-offs as well as adaptations of novels, comics, TV shows, video games and older movies, is because Hollywood "runs on the principle of plausible deniability," and that if studio executives can point to a good reason why they green-lit a turkey, it would be more plausible to deny their bad judgement by pointing to the property's existing market.

Forms of plausible deniability include...

  • Hiding information from higher-ups in an effort to protect them.

  • Pressuring or encouraging a superior to issue an order for something you want to do but don't want to be blamed for.

  • Claiming to have misunderstood or not have been aware of orders, instructions or facts that would have prohibited or prevented a desired action on your part.

  • Creating a false identity or straw man to throw people off of your trail, obscure your actions, or create the impression someone else undertook actions you took.

  • Devising a seemingly valid reason to be at or away from a certain place or engage in a certain activity at a given time.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Subverted big time in Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl: no one will let Hazumu keep anything a secret even though early on she tries. The aliens announce what they did to her, and when she tries to hide Jan-puu the next morning she goes downstairs to discover her friend having breakfast with her parents.
  • At first Gainax's anime Nadia, Secret of Blue Water seemed to use this trope. It took place in 1889 and features remnants of Atlantean civilization fighting a covert war right under the world's nose, without seeming to affect history in any way. However, apparently at the end of the series they just said "screw it" and have a giant flying saucer blow up the Eiffel Tower, a 1/4 of Paris, and project giant holograms all over the world.
  • Maintaining Plausible Deniability is one of the main conflicts of the Haruhi Suzumiya series. Itsuki (and, to a lesser extent, Kyon) likes the world the way it is, and makes it one of his goals to keep Haruhi's Reality Warping from changing things too much.
  • The Transformers series of various stripes tend to use this a lot. Especially Robots In Disguise, where one character is pretty sure she's going insane simply because all these strange things she seems to wind up in the middle of can't possibly be happening.
    • Oddly enough, given that "Robots in Disguise" is a series catchphrase, the Transformers rarely stay hidden and have usually outed themselves to humans within the first couple of episodes/issues in each continuity.
    • Revenge of the Fallen features this as well; apparently, the battle in Mission City at the end of the first film was covered up extremely efficiently.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman tends to prefer that ordinary people think of him this way; the majority of regular folks in the DCU (outside of Gotham, anyway) tend to think he's a myth, so as to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement outside of Gotham.
  • In the first Suicide Squad series, Shade the Changing Man told about an incredibly confusing conspiracy that was going on in his home dimension. When Shade and the Squad confronted the conspirators on Earth, one of the Squad members asked what to do when the police arrived. Shade replied to tell the police the truth and they will brush it off as a delusional fantasy.
  • In the first Resurrection Man series (taking place in the DC Universe), our titular character confronted a bunch of mobsters and crooked cops while appearing in a monster-like form. One of the witnesses was later confined to a mental institution for reporting what she saw.
  • This was one of Lex Luthor's greatest weapons back when he was a Corrupt Corporate Executive. Lex could pull all of these stunts to try to kill Superman and when they all inevitably failed, he always had a way to mitigate his involvement, as seen in Man of Steel #5.

    Film 
  • The movie Men In Black (and the later animated series) gives our heroes a device to clear peoples' memories of a given event that had transpired concerning aliens. Theoretically, this gives them the power of "plausible deniability" beyond belief, although their excuses aren't always so plausible.
  • Lampshaded in Independence Day. The Secretary of Defense has kept the existence of aliens at Area51 a secret even from the President, so that if anyone would ask, the President can't be caught lying and accidentally reveal it. Which is exactly what happens in the movie at first.
    President Whitmore: Why the hell wasn't I told about this place?
    • Though it went beyond what could be considered reasonable when he still didn't reveal it when the aliens actually turned up, but waited until the President had actually denied there was any previous alien contact.
    • Not necessarily. Nimziki assumed that conventional or nuclear weapons were enough to defeat the aliens. He was probably hoping he'd never have to tell the President about Area 51. He ends up getting fired for being obstructive later on.
      • Yeah, that's... pretty unreasonable. At this point, the fact that we are not alone won't be a revelation, so whatever public panic ensues will ensue regardless. He has no basis to assume the nukes' effectiveness, since they only have one scout ship that is 40 years out of date, and it's something that could aid greatly in decision-making. Also, that same scout ship was later used to defeat the aliens, and could have been used since the moment of their appearance... BEFORE they destroyed most of the world's major cities.
  • In Lord of War, it's revealed in the end that Yuri acts as a middleman for the US Government, selling arms to goverments and groups that the US doesn't want to be publicly associated with. Even though this effectively gives him a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card, Yuri bleakly wonders when his benefactors will decide that he's no longer useful to them.

    Literature 
  • Thanks to memory charms, non-magical people (Muggles), do not know about about wizards and witches in Harry Potter.
    • There are major implied loopholes in the magical legal system where someone could avoid consequences or testifying by claiming to be compelled or mind-wiped (or actually charming yourself to know nothing about something), but it's never explored, with only a mention that some dark wizards got off through claiming they had been Brainwashed.
  • The same thing also occurs in Artemis Fowl thanks to mindwiping.
  • In the classic science fiction story "What's the Name of That Town?" by R. A. Lafferty, Chicago has been destroyed in an unspecified catastrophe. The event was so traumatic that the very existence of the city has been wiped from historical records and everyone's memory. A sentient computer figures out the truth from a collection of disconnected clues, but the moment it has finished telling the real story to its human companions, the facts instantly once again disappear from everybody's mind and the computer's database.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a galaxy-wide system of government, and the only reason we don't know about it is that we aren't as advanced as everyone else yet. In fact, there are a few aliens living on Earth, and a handful of humans know about them, but they have no connection to any Earth government. And the Earth has been blown up on one occasion, but it (and everyone on it) has been replaced with the same memories up until shortly before the world ends, so nobody remembers it.
  • Averted in Charles Stross's multiple-parallel-universe The Merchant Princes Series. For the first few books, everything could plausibly be going on under our noses, with strange events being passed off as hoaxes or terrorist attacks. He blows the lid off the masquerade at the end of book five when a dissident faction nukes Washington D.C. (also, it's revealed in passing that the main universe isn't ours, but a slightly different one-in which, for example, Saddam Hussein is killed in a coup just before the U.S. invasion).
  • In the Percy Jackson series a magical force called the Mist shifts events involving demigods into something more mundane that they can process.

    Live Action TV 
  • In an early episode of Law & Order, Stone prods Schiff to allow him to press charges in a controversial case, which leads Schiff to ask, "Are you looking for plausible deniability? Since when do I dictate to you?"
  • Recordings briefing the protagonists in Mission: Impossible usually contained a line saying, "should you or any member of your IM force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."
  • Star Trek has had some bizarre run-ins with Plausible Deniability as a result of the original series's occasional mentions of late-20th-century "history". The intercontinental war of the 1990s is suspiciously absent from Flashback and Time Travel episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine appeared to have retconned that war into the late 21st century, though Star Trek: Enterprise finally gave up and admitted that the 1990s of the Trek Verse differ massively from those of our universe (one difference is that apparently there was no TV show called ''Star Trek'' in the Trek Verse, as evidenced by the Enterprise crew walking around San Francisco in The Voyage Home without being mobbed for autographs... of course, this means that the Enterprise was named after the Space Shuttle, which means, in turn, the Space Shuttle must've been named after nothing in particular any of eight ships in the US Navy).
    • More likely any of the fifteen ships in the Royal Navy, given that two of the others were named after British exploration ships (note the spelling of Endeavour on the shuttle's side).
      • Reading the other wiki-the Endeavour was named after HMS Endeavour, Discovery after not one but four British ships named Discovery, and Challenger was named after HMS Challenger. So, half of the shuttle fleet was named directly after British ships. Can't find any source for where NCC-1701 got its name from, though.
    • The Spin-Off novel series The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh made a heroic attempt to explain how the Eugenics Wars could have taken place in the real 1990s without anyone noticing (it still had Khan ruling part of India openly, which obviously did not happen, but the rest took place behind the scenes).
  • War of the Worlds takes the unusual stand that most of humanity simply doesn't remember the massive and very public invasion of the 1950s. There's no major government coverup, and most humans could probably find out about it if they really tried, but most people just find alien invasions too far outside their normal sensibilities to think about it very much.
  • Power Rangers rarely bothers with Plausible Deniability, but there are a few oddball examples of trying to shoehorn it in: in "Trakeena's Revenge", a receptionist tells a small girl that there's no such thing as monsters, even though they've been attacking the city weekly for months and other cities for several years. In "Prelude To A Storm", Tori thinks the Power Rangers are fictional, even though they're major cultural icons by this point. (The producer later explained that he just thought the line was funny and didn't mean for fans to take it so seriously.) It happens again in Power Rangers Megaforce, wherein the characters are in awe of the existence of Power Rangers and that there are aliens invading, despite the fact that aliens have been invading and repelled by Power Rangers on a weekly basis for the last twenty years.
    • When they crossed over with the TeenageMutantNinjaTurtles, each team thought the other wasn't real.
    • There are other times where they go in expressly the opposite direction and make it clear that everyone knows about the Power Rangers and that, yes, all these Power Ranger series have existed in the same universe with the exception of RPM and possibly SPD which are in the future anyway, which is what makes it even more jarring when the series tries to pretend no one knows what a Power Ranger is.
  • The entire nine-year run of The X-Files depends on the creators' abilities to maintain this trope.
  • Stargate SG-1 does this a lot. It makes sense for the public to not know about the Stargate Program itself, which is a secret government project, but fleets of alien ships attacking Earth (which should be seen by astronomers, at least) and strange events up to the teleportation of a whole building into space somehow are never noticed (with that last one, the media even mentions that no explosion was heard and no rubble was seen, but they can't figure out what did happen).
    • Astronomers DO see the alien ships, but the government tells elaborate cover stories, and most people choose to believe the stories and think that they misinterpreted what they saw other than accept the reality that aliens do exist. The ones who don't turn conspiracy-theorist and attract the attention of the government, who in that case tell them the truth and have them sign a confidentiality agreement.
    • Actually the fact that someone saw the battle (and is blackmailing the government with its existence) is the plot of one episode.
    • And then there's the time an amateur astronomer spots an asteroid on a collision course with earth and is trying to convince a switchboard operator to transfer him to somebody in authority when a big car with tinted windows pulls up and men in suits and sunglasses come pouring out.
      "Never mind."
    • Human ships used in Stargate are so large that, when in Earth orbit, they would be clearly visible to the naked eye and resolvable with amateur-grade telescopes. No conspiracy would be able to cover up an object in the sky only outshone by the Moon and Sun. Or a gigaton nuke detonating in space. Then again, the blinding flash is really the least of your worries when a nuke goes off that close to the magnetic field....
      • The largest human ship is 200m long, in high orbit and no solar panels to reflect light. You wont see it. The closest in RL is ISS with its solar panels to reflect light and ISS is visible 2-5 minutes a day if you know where to look.
    • Though given the vast number of people that now know about the Stargate program (it's been leaked on TV by a-then discredited-media mogul; all the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council have been informed, including China who have explicitly said they have no intention of keeping the USA's secret; an entire US Carrier group was sent to deal with Anubis' attack on Earth (and the carrier and cruiser were destroyed, as was possibly the rest of the battlegroup), good luck on explaining that one away (over 8,000 personnel, and over 150,000 tons of equipment)); they were partly responsible for the forced resignation of the US Vice President Kinsey; not to mention all the random "ordinary" people who've been involved in one episode or other) it's frankly ridiculous that the story hasn't got out yet.
    • What about all the US military personnel stationed offworld? Why hasn't someone noticed that the number of troops shipped out to say Iraq or Afghanistan is not equal to the number of troops that actually exist? Not to mention how to explain away all the casualties caused by the monster of the week.
    • Speaking of astronomers, some of them really should have noticed that the outside universe "jumped" forward in time several months, because the earth, and several other stars, looped in time for that amount. We don't know how big that effect was, but it's been several years, so unless the "bubble" included neighboring stars, light from outside it should have already hit the earth. It did include neighboring stars, so perhaps the light since then from the stars that weren't in the bubble hasn't reached Earth yet, in which case it wouldn't become an issue for decades, or possibly centuries.
    • General Landry mentions that this is why the military allows the production of "Wormhole X-Treme!", the Show Within a Show in Stargate that is basically the plot of the actual show. If it airs on television as a sci-fi show, why would people believe that it's actually real?
  • In Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the Witches Council had a rule that witches (and other magical beings) were not allowed to let mortals know the existence of witches and magic. With a few exceptions, mortals who somehow found out either underwent Laser-Guided Amnesia-or were made to believe that what they experienced was All Just a Dream.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Gas leaks. Gangs on PCP.
    • " Mayhem Ensues: Monsters Definitely Not Involved"
    • "I must've fallen on a barbecue fork..."
    • Buffy at least has a good reason for such a strong cloak of secrecy: the Mayor/s Wilkins I, II, and III (same guy) built and carefully developed the town to fuel his own ambitions, mainly becoming immortal and trading sufficient amounts of regular townspeople to various demons to allow himself to reach ascension. He undoubtedly controlled the police and made sure to make the town appear low key enough to keep federal authorities away.
  • The general public in LOST is unaware of the strange events that occurred after the crash of Oceanic 815 due to the Oceanic 6 creating a complex cover story. This lie is not perfect, however, and the Mysteries of the Universe and Oceanic 6: A Conspiracy of Lies specials suggest some conspiracy theorists have begun to suspect something's up. It's unknown what effect the escape of the survivors on the Ajira plane had on this masquerade.
  • A literal application of plausible deniability was used in My Name Is Earl, when Earl meets the president of Winky-Dinky Dogs and tells him one of his subordinates burned down a competitor's hot dog stand. His response was 'Actually, I don't want to know about it. Business is tough, son. You try to play by the rules, but sometimes you can't. And when you can't, I'd rather be able to stand up in court and say I didn't know about it'.
  • The trope is named in the Castle episode "Still" after Castle saves Beckett from a bomb and Beckett fights off the urge to kiss Castle in front of Captain Gates:
    Gates: Oh for heaven sakes, detective, just kiss the man!
    Beckett: Wait, you knew?
    Gates: What, am I an idiot? I'm claiming plausible deniability, which I can still do as long as you two remain professional in the precinct.
    Castle: Can do, Captain.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • On WWE NXT Season 5, a good chunk of the season was taken up by a storyline involving Maxine, Johnny Curtis, and Derrick Bateman. During this story, Maxine would originally be paired with Derrick Bateman, but eventually switch to Johnny Curtis after having suspicions that Bateman was not being faithful to her. The problem here was that the majority of stuff that Maxine was mad about was planted by Johnny Curtis on camera. All Maxine had to do was see this footage and she'd know who was lying and telling the truth. Another storyline was the "Who Kidnapped Matt Striker?" angle, which was revealed on camera to be Tyler Reks and Curt Hawkins, who were both filmed admitting it. A few weeks later, people still had no idea who had done it, despite the commentators acknowledging it on camera. If these happened on camera, why would no one point them out to Maxine or anyone in charge? How come the commentators said nothing? Therefore, for all of these things to happen on NXT Redemption, it has to be assumed that nobody watches the show, including both employees and fans around the world. It also has to be assumed that the fans in the arenas either do not see the footage on the titantron or do not care enough to inform anyone. Lastly, the commentators must immediately forget what footage they saw considering William Regal was the NXT GM at this point and would be the most concerned about Matt Striker's whereabouts.
    • Not to mention Matt Striker showed up on both WWE SmackDown! and WWE Superstars during the time he was supposed to be kidnapped and no one seemed to realize it or wonder how he kept being kidnapped.
      • That was explained as WWE had hired someone who looked remarkably like Striker, in order to keep the kidnapping a secret.

    Video Games 
  • In Mass Effect, after Shepard becomes a Spectre, which allows them to serve as Judge, Jury, and Executioner, Admiral Hackett will repeatedly contact them about helping the Systems Alliance clean up things that that the Alliance have been involved with that aren't entirely legal. These things include: Supporting a drug lord with arms (Mission: Trojan Horse Assassination), sending reconnaissance probes that will detonate with nuclear force if found (Mission: Recover/Destroy probe), and doing illegal AI research (Mission: Destroy).
  • In Dragon Age II, the Viscount, the Arishok and the Templars all use Hawke as a neutral third party agent to deal with problems that they can't officially be seen to get involved in, as well as take the blame if it goes wrong. It helps that Hawke's entire work-ethic is "I Was Never Here".

    Webcomics 
  • Although the aliens in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob! do have a (very loosely enforced) "hands-off" policy regarding Earth because it's a "nature preserve," the main reason that Generictown has not been swamped by the press and other curiosity-seekers seems to be an overwhelming, near-universal Weirdness Censor among most of the people in town.

    Western Animation 
  • Completely, totally, and utterly subverted in Codename: Kids Next Door. At first, the series seems like it could, with some Willing Suspension of Disbelief, take place in our world: the title organization is limited to a few kids playing in their leader's yard, and there are generally no credible witnesses around the kids' adventures, which could merely be attributed to their overactive imaginations. Then in the first season finale, Applied Phlebotinum is used which forcibly turns a character into an adult, and the Big Bad is revealed to have control over fire somehow. Even then, since that episode takes place mostly in the aforementioned villain's mansion and the characters never speak of it again, one could suppose that there's just some kind of Masquerade going on. After that, however, it's revealed that there are Kids Next Door operatives all over the world, that Sector V is just one small part of the organization, and that the 2x4 technology actually works and can easily ignore the laws of physics, up to and including building functional supercomputers, and having a friggin' MOON BASE accessed and operated by children, among other things. The villains' schemes also become wider in scope and more public at this point. Yes there is the Masquerade element that the Kids Next Door erase thirteen-year-old operatives' memories with plungers, but since the villains have no reason to enforce it, and considering all the strange and impossible places the characters visit (at least one of which, an ocean of asparagus, is in no way hidden and right next to a residential area), it eventually becomes clear that the series Never Was This Universe.

     Real Life 
  • Classic example: saying something insulting or embarrassing then saying, "oh, I was just kidding."
  • A large reason why secrecy is protected so zealously by all nation states. Its just not in anyone's interest to deal with everyone openly and honestly.
  • It has been alleged that members of the Reagan administration kept the president in the dark about clandestine operations so as to protect him from political fallout. Similar allegations have been made about the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama in more recent years.
  • It's common for creators to use pseudonyms on projects to dodge contracts or distance themselves from unsatisfactory or unpopular projects.


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