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Apocalyptic Gag Order

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"Martin, it's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh? What?' You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July!"
Mayor Vaughn, Jaws

The Apocalypse or some great world-destroying disaster is coming. Various governments of the world have already seen it coming, and are working on some way to counter it and save us all. Several governments may even be agreeing to work together despite previous animosities, just because if there's no world, they can't go back to saber-rattling at each other afterward.

In many Hollywood movies, it begins with the President. S/he may or may not have an onscreen conference with all the other world leaders, but the order comes from the White House. If we don't see the President giving the order, we see the government acting on orders from the White House.

All the other countries agreed offscreen as well: To prevent worldwide panic and the breakdown of society that would come with it, they must keep the disaster quiet until it's solved...or until it's too late to do anything about it. They will enforce it by any means necessary, including dispatching the military or any other big gun type mooks to keep the secret, right on up to disappearing anyone, such as an Intrepid Reporter who might blow the whistle. The government is not above killing to keep the secret either.

While the scary people with the guns are grabbing and disappearing anyone who might talk, the government also gives strict and explicit commands to the media and the press: "you can tell the public this particular comforting platitude until we say different; dire consequences if you step out of line".

It is not necessarily confined to the government either; sometimes people who have other types of power take it upon themselves to protect the world regardless of what the government thinks.

The lower-budget version of this is the small town threatened by monster or disaster, and the local government, with the support of Obstructive Bureaucrats wants to keep it quiet because it'll scare off the tourists.

Inevitably despite the governments' best efforts, the secret gets out one way or another, and the world at large finds out. Usually by this time it's too late.

A common variation is the President or leader person wanting to go public only to be advised against it by weaselly assistants or well intentioned staff.

Naturally common to Disaster Movies of all types; usually part of The Plague scenario or the Zombie Apocalypse as well.

Compare Information Wants to Be Free and Gas Leak Cover-Up. Related to Government Conspiracy. Subtrope of The Masquerade and The World Is Not Ready.


Global Threat

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In School-Live! the Japanese government knew of the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse beforehand and the main characters' school was set up as a shelter. Megu-nee was given an emergency manual on her first day of being a teacher, however it wasn't known it was zombie related until after the epidemic hit.

    Comic Books 
  • Secret Wars (2015) has some of this going on. The governments of the world don't know that there are multiversal incursions happening, all destroying the universes as worlds collided, but there are a handful of superheroes (and supervillains) who know. They keep it secret to the point of mind-wiping several other heroes who find out and disagree with their methods, causing a schism amongst superheroes right as the last incursion between Earth-616 and Earth-1610 begins.
  • Superman wouldn't exist without this trope. His father, Jor-El, warned the Kryptonian council that their world was going to explode from geothermic activity. They dismissed him and prevented him from making any noise about his findings, so all he and his wife could do was send their baby to safety in a ship. This differs from the usual trope in that the council wasn't covering up an oncoming disaster (they didn't believe there was any danger); they were covering up the embarrassment of having a distinguished scientist proclaiming an (apparently) crackpot theory.

    Fan Works 
  • Abraxas (Hrodvitnon): Subverted by Monarch. Although they don't tell the world what they know about the newly-reborn Monster X, and the Many that are roaming Perm Krai straight away, it doesn't take them long to quit stalling; true to the ending of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), which established Monarch are striving to be more open with the public about what they know after the global apocalypse that Ghidorah incited in that film. However, it's still not clear if Monarch also mentioned to the world that they knew Monster X's San half wasn't the only piece of Ghidorah's heads that's still alive and active before Keizer Ghidorah and the Many consumed an entire city's population in Russia, so the trope might actually be downplayed.

  • From the backstory of A Champion in Earth-Bet: Long ago, the gods and all manner of magical things were banished to Limbo, trapping them away from the mortal world. Adeltom, the god of heroism, eventually managed to escape Limbo by transferring his consciousness into an avatar whose powers were reduced to "merely" Superman-scale, too insignificant for the banishment spell to bind. The problem was that near the end of World War II, Nazi mystics managed to un-banish magic, starting a process that will eventually lead to the return of the gods. And with Adeltom's powers crippled by his avatar form, the Balance Between Good and Evil will be overthrown and the evil gods will have a much greater hand in the Earth's affairs. Adeltom has been trying to find a way to either renew the banishment or regain his divine powers, but with no luck so far. And this has be kept a secret because if it became public knowledge, some asshole might take the opportunity to call to the evil gods, accelerating their return.

  • A particularly egregious example in 2012. The Ignored Expert warns what's going to happen but is blown off. The secret is kept pretty well. The hero only finds out because of who he's working for, and the "save humanity" ships are pretty much meant only for those who can afford to chip in and have them built.
  • Armageddon (1998): The amateur astronomer who found the meteor after NASA did got to name it. He chose to call it after his wife, Dottie. Despite the roughnecks' blabbing at a strip club about their top-secret, world-saving mission for NASA, the lid is kept on the secret until a meteor hits a major city (it's kinda hard to not notice Shanghai turned into a freaking crater); then the NASA guy gets a text that lets him know that Dottie has gone public. Even then, news reports for the first few days complain that the government is still not telling the public much.
  • Implied in Battle: Los Angeles. The government was all ready to take pictures and scan the landing spacecraft and in no time was sending a unit to plant explosives in the command center — however, the rest of the world is surprised to see aliens arrive.
  • Largely averted in Contagion (2011); the government is up-front about just how bad things are, but they do try to keep a lid on the Chicago quarantine because they're trying to avoid carriers leaving to infect others, but they're foiled by Dr. Cheever's attempt to warn his wife. Even then, Kreuzwielde does his damnedest to be a rabble rouser by making people believe that the government is keeping some very dire secrets under cover.
  • The Crazies (1973): Not only did the government keep a lid on the sickness, but they tracked survivors and targeted them before they could get to safety and either blow the whistle or spread the infection.
  • The Day After Tomorrow: The scientist is ignored by the vice president, who refuses to fund research about the climate. By the time the weather changes, it's obvious to humanity at large. It all happens too fast to do anything but evacuate people down to the southern hemisphere, and lots of people die deaths of lacking in common sense because they don't take the problem as seriously as merited. The Vice President had pooh-poohed the seriousness of the threat.
  • Deep Impact: The Intrepid Reporter actually thought she was chasing a cheating scandal or a disgraced politician scandal. But the President's people thought that she knew the truth about the incoming comet and treated her as such. The President shows some knowledge that something this huge is impossible to keep secret for long, and takes the appearance of the reporter to mean the jig is up: people are beginning to notice something's going on, and even if they silence this reporter, another will come along shortly. The information goes public a couple of weeks later, and the President issues orders on national television intended to keep society together as long as possible: no price gouging on gas, water, or other necessities.
  • Don't Look Up: President Orlean orders Mindy and Kate to keep quiet on the comet until after the midterm elections. Obviously, they decide that leaking news of The End of the World as We Know It is more important, but thanks to the media having the Worst News Judgment Ever, nobody takes them seriously until scientists from more prestigious universities verify their discovery. When Kate reveals to the public that the president aborted the mission to deflect the comet so that her donor's company could mine it for trillions of dollars' worth of minerals, she's kidnapped by the FBI and forced to sign a gag order. Later on, after he grows disillusioned with BASH's plan and has a breakdown on live TV, Mindy gets a similar order to sign.
  • Independence Day plays with the trope. Averted, in that the global countdown and the arrival of alien ships all over the world caused the panic before the governments could put a lid on it. Regarding the rumors of Area 51, though, the military kept the President himself in the dark for plausible deniability reasons. He was not pleased.
  • In I, Robot, after Det. Spooner interrogates Sonny, a rouge NS-5 robot, as to why he killed Dr. Lanning, Robertson, C.E.O. of U.S. Robotics tells Spooner and Lt. Bergin that Sonny is just a malfunctioning NS-5, and Lanning's death is nothing more than an industrial accident, and hands them a gag order, warning that if word gets out that the police apprehended a "Killer Robot," they will be prosecuted fro trying to start a panic. Near the end of the film, the "killer robot" turns out to be VIKI, an artificial intelligence system meant to run the city's infrastructure but who has decided that humanity is too careless with their own survival and that she has to use the other NS-5s' to shepherd the humans.
  • Outbreak: Colonels McClintock and Ford, despite knowing how deadly the Motaba virus is, play clueless so that they can use the version they have a cure for as a germ warfare weapon. There's even a scene in The War Room where they watch a projection of Motaba's contagion spread and death toll, indicating the president is on board. There are repeated examples of the government telling people who are sick that they'll be just fine — right before dropping a Fuel Air Bomb on the infection.
  • In The Return of the Living Dead, the previous film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), is presented as Very Loosely Based on a True Story — the government tried to hush it up, but some news leaked out, so they let a movie be made but insisted that the filmmakers change certain aspects and claim it was fiction. Unfortunately for the protagonists, one of the things the government decided to keep hush-hush is that Trioxin zombies are damn near un-(re)killable, and not even ripping their heads off will stop them.
    "You mean the movie lied?!"
  • Attempted but defied in Without Warning (1994): when the governments of the world detect a second wave of impactors en route to Earth, aiming for several country capitals (like Washington, D.C.) they try to keep it quiet, but one of the doctors just call it quits right then and there and announces that they are coming in an impromptu press conference before leaving to spend what he thinks are his last hours with his family (which turns out to have been a good assumption).

  • Chrysalis (RinoZ): Wallace gives Yasmine her orders for dealing with the ant invasion of their city, but he insists that she not tell people what's really happening, because it will just start a panic that will be counterproductive. Unbeknownst to Yasmine, he's pulling the same thing on her, by not telling her that he believes the situation is hopeless.
    He'd had to lie to her, to keep her steady.
  • Subverted and lampshaded in The Dead Past: When a pair of scientists reinvent a Forbidden Technology that has Unforeseen Consequences, the government agents tasked with keeping it a secret are stymied by the fact that it's so secret they don't technically have the authority to censor it. They try threats of imprisonment without trial or worse, only to be told "This isn't the Twentieth Century".
  • Newsflesh: In the Countdown Novella, the CDC and the governments of the world feed the news comforting platitudes to tell the world about the sickness sweeping the globe. One CDC scientist breaks the true story on his tween daughter's blog.
  • The US government attempts this in the face of an impending asteroid collision in Remnants #1: The Mayflower Project. This ends in The Unmasqued World when a fragment of the asteroid, knocked off by a comet it ran over on its way in, hits Los Angeles a few days ahead of the main event and is livestreamed on the Internet; massive riots ensue.
  • Seveneves: The Moon has broken up (a week is wasted wondering why) and Earth is facing a serious bombardment of rubble. We can't hide the fact that the Moon is gone, and we can't suppress the realization that everyone's about to be pounded back to the Precambrian. But we can try to get as many of the best and brightest out of the firing line, and pack as much of the fruits of human civilization away with them, as possible. At least, that's the line that's delivered by the powers that be. In reality, they've decided that it's a lost cause but giving people a year thinking that something is being done about the catastrophe (and You Too Can Contribute!) is a year not spent collapsing into mass panic. Those aware of the subterfuge go along with it in the name of peace and sanity. Ironically, some are genuinely working to mitigate the disaster but find themselves hampered by others only concerned with the palliative spectacle.
  • The Stand has the government trying to cover up the spread of the superflu. One guy with a camera gets shot, and newsrooms are taken over to make sure the reporters don't talk about flu-related stuff on the air. When it's admitted there's an outbreak, the government insists there'll be a vaccine soon.
  • In World War Z, China does a regular version in the face of a Zombie Apocalypse, with the addition of creating a military crisis with Taiwan to provide a cover for their press clampdown and army mobilization. The U.S. government gets in on the action with a variation: although several outbreaks have made the news, the government presents it as a form of rabies, and helps a Corrupt Corporate Executive with marketing his rabies vaccine so that people will remain calm and assume the problem is under control. Once the vaccine is revealed to be useless and the outbreaks become more frequent The Great Panic begins.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
    • Season 1 starts out portraying the team as essentially the Men in Black, not only working to protect Earth from Weird Stuff but also to keep it out of the public eye. At one point, Coulson mentions having stopped an antimatter meteor from impacting Earth, and that they made sure no one ever heard about it.
    • Season 3 has the American government creating the Advanced Threat Containment Unit to secretly detain anyone who has Inhuman-like powers and cover up any news regarding the spread of Terrigen on a global scale.
  • Chernobyl: The Soviet Union tries to keep what happened secret until they are forced to admit it. Even when they are working with West Germany, they downplay just how bad the radiation is, leading to the Germans giving them a completely inadequate robot for the task.
  • Fear the Walking Dead: Implied, but never shown onscreen. All the main characters know is that there's some weird bug going around and that people are staying home for fear of catching it. The news has a couple of disturbing shots on video with rumors flying online. But the fact that the Zombie Apocalypse has started is not common knowledge as of the series' first two episodes. It's obvious that the news has trickled down through the government though. The police are already advised to shoot them in the head, and are starting to desert to prepare for the worst.
  • Into the Night has NATO cover up the arrival of a gamma ray burst from the sun that will kill anyone it reaches. Terrenzio, a high-level official in NATO only learns of it from overhearing other members discuss it.
  • Kamen Rider Gaim: The first arc introduces Mons called Invess which teens use to settle their disputes, summoned through a crack in space. Then some teens discover large Cracks overflowing with vines which appear randomly around town, leading to a strange jungle filled with Invess... as well as men in hazmat suits who cordon such areas off and destroy all evidence with flamethrowers. It turns out that the Yggdrasil Corporation, working with an unspecified number of high-ranking government figures around the world, have discovered that these Cracks are multiplying at an exponential rate, with the inedible Invess-spawning "Helheim plant" which emerges from them predicted to displace all Earth plantlife within a mere 10 years. Yggdrasil have a plan which can grant humans the ability to survive on Helheim fruit in place of normal food... but there are only enough resources in the world to convert one billion people, so they're preparing to kill everyone else with a globe-spanning war before the fruit's mutagenic effects trigger a Zombie Apocalypse of superpowered "Category H" Invess which wipes out everyone they managed to save. The entire Invess Game system was developed by Yggdrasil as a way to cover up Invess sightings, and as things get out of hand they signal-boost by spreading info to criminal gangs on how to jailbreak the Invess devices and use them to commit crimes.
  • Stargate SG-1 has a couple of incidents where a Goa'uld attack against Earth gets a gag order, due to the secrecy of the stargate program. Due to it being done by the protagonists, they use non-violent measures to enforce it and the crisis always passes. It doesn't become an issue until the season 6 Clip Show "Disclosure" when the Chinese government threatens to go public with information contradicting one of the SGC's cover stories.
    • "The Serpent's Lair" has the US government gag the appearance of two Goa'uld motherships in Earth orbit, which they manage to maintain even when other governments query why the United States just launched two ballistic missiles at them.
    • "Failsafe" opens with an amateur astronomer on the phone with somebody saying he's located an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, just as several cars worth of government agents drive up on him. After the opening credits, Samantha Carter explains that the Air Force took his footage and convinced him to keep quiet.
    • "Prometheus" has the President himself intervene to shut down a TV story about "Project Prometheus", which the TV crew mistakenly thinks is a fusion reactor (it's Earth's first attempt at a spacegoing warship to counter Goa'uld motherships). In return, they're guaranteed an exclusive when the project goes public.
    • Done after the fact in "Covenant" when a billionaire to whom the SGC subcontracted parts of the F-302 Space Fighter tries to go public about the battle between the SGC and Anubis over Antarctica. The SGC releases a different cover story, then has their Asgard friend Thor beam all the evidence right out of the billionaire's office building.
    • This was actually the thread fans wanted resolved when the series ended. It was never resolved because there were spinoff shows that relied on the gag order.
    • One episode showed a possible outcome of the gag order being lifted. In a parallel universe, the President was forced to reveal the existence of the Stargate program and aliens to the public, resulting in disorder that forced the President to declare martial law. Air Force One was also moved to the Prometheus.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light", when Kamin (whose memories Picard is experiencing) confronts his government about the fact that their planet is dying, it is revealed that the government of Kataan had already known for a while. Their society doesn't have the technology to leave the planet, so they plan to Face Death with Dignity, while recording their society's culture in a probe and launching it into space (which the crew of the Enterprise-D recovers, kicking off the episode).
  • You, Me and the Apocalypse zig-zags this. The government initially tells the public the truth about what is going to happen, but when the attempt to save the world fails, they start to lie to the public.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Higurashi: When They Cry, the fact that the villagers of Hinamizawa are hosts to parasite that causes them to go insane when under stress is a tightly held government secret. When the Queen Carrier of the parasite dies, rather than deal with a whole bunch of insane villagers, the government decides to gas them all, destroying the village. After that, anything that might blow their Gas Leak Cover Up also falls under the gag order.

    Video Games 
  • In the Mass Effect series, the Citadel Council pointedly refuses to acknowledge the Reaper threat until it's too late because they want to preserve the Council races' military dominance and just plain old denial.
  • One of the functions of the title organization in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is to keep the world public unaware of the real scale of the on-going alien invasion. Failing to deal with alien attacks discretely and to hide the evidence results in panic levels going up across the globe, which is bad all around.

  • In Quantum Vibe the ultra-Libertarian L-5 City's Board of Directors orders Nicole to keep her FTL drive a secret for at least a year, since it could be used to teleport nukes anywhere, destroying civilization again — so she invents an interdiction device.
  • In one arc of Schlock Mercenary, a man-eating shark appears on a terraformed planet that wasn't supposed to have any sharks, killing one of the Toughs and mauling another while they are vacationing there. When Der Trihs calls the cops, they arrest him because they decide that he must be trying to sabotage their tourism industry with a robotic shark. It isn't until the police chief personally witnesses a Mad Scientist confess to releasing the thing and then get eaten by a giant squid he'd also released that he decides to close the beaches.
  • In the backstory of Stand Still, Stay Silent, the world governments pretended that the "rash sickness" was infectious but mostly harmless and that the patients zero were responding well to treatment, and said that they were closing borders to travel simply because an epidemic would temporarily cripple the workforce. Of course, even they probably didn't know that the Illness could infect all mammals including wild vermin and whales, or that it occasionally zombified its victims rather than killing them...

Local Threat

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Persona -trinity soul-, the mysterious cases of Apathy Syndrome, due to Shadow Extraction attacks by Marebito, are not made public by Superintendent Ryo Kanzato, the chief of the Ayanagi City Police Station, in order to investigate and prevent the city's populace from being affected. It's implied that top officials in Ayanagi City are privy to the details alongside Superintendent Kanzato, but also choose not to make them known to the public and to most of the force. This leads to resentment from some of the officers since their affected colleagues don't recover from Apathy Syndrome.

  • Almost every Irwin Allen movie had some variety of Obstructive Bureaucrat or Suit with Vested Interests who was more concerned about making money than saving it, only to have the disaster completely wipe out their pet project (as an example, When Time Ran Out... and the disregarding of the warnings about the volcano in order to keep the hotel open).
  • Dante's Peak: The guy sent from the National Geological Survey warns of a volcano. There are all the signs. The local government doesn't want to lose the tourism dollars because the town just won a "greatest places to live" award, and his boss thinks he's overreacting from a previous bad experience with a volcano. By the time they can be convinced to share it with the town, the volcano is already in the process of erupting.
  • Jaws: Amityville wanted to keep the giant great white shark a secret because they didn't want to lose summer tourism dollars. A small child ended up losing his life with a huge crowd watching.
  • In Night Claws, there's a Bigfoot killing people in a national forest next to a town. The mayor tells the sheriff to keep things quiet or they'll scare off the tourists coming into town.
  • In The Rock, the government keeps a lid on the terrorists' threat (launching VX gas rockets at San Francisco) for fear of creating a mass panic.
  • Syfy has a metric ton of movies with the small-town version of the trope, with the application of Obstructive Bureaucrat, Suit with Vested Interests, or worse yet, Armies Are Evil (as in, the Monster of the Week is some kind of secret Government Conspiracy project). For example: Lake Placid: The Final Chapter.
  • Volcano: The scientists' concern of a volcano in Los Angeles are blown off by a guy who controls the subway. Redemption Equals Death when he finds out that they were right. He dies performing a Heroic Sacrifice to rescue the civilians who passed out on the train. By the time they've accepted "okay, it's a volcano," a sizeable portion of Los Angeles is lost to lava or on fire by proximity.

  • In The Midwich Cuckoos, the Official Secrets Act is invoked to prevent news of the Midwich Dayout from spreading. This leads some to suspect that it was the doing of a Government Conspiracy, especially since the Grange, a Ministry research facility, was at the epicenter of the incident. However, before the Bizarre Baby Boom kicks in, very few details are known anyway, since everyone in Midwich fell mysteriously unconscious for the duration of the incident and nobody from the outside world could see what was going on.

    Video Games 
  • Intel items in Spec Ops: The Line reveal that the UAE government knew the cataclysmic sandstorm which destroys Dubai was coming, but hushed it up to allow the wealthy to escape first.

    Real Life 
  • Ironically, China is not one of the countries with a gag order — their official word is simply that they will release the information if it ever becomes necessary, and say to the world "You Didn't Ask" if someone questions why.
  • In 1942, the British government tried to suppress the news of the sinking of flagship battleship HMS Barham, on the grounds that this would be one disaster too many for the British people to take. Unfortunately, the news had already reached the ship's home port, and rumour spread which combined with official denial to make the situation look even worse. One victim of this fallout was a fraudulent medium making a living out of Navy families in Portsmouth. She got hold of the story through non-psychic channels (the Royal Navy rumour mill) and then pretended to have got the news via her guides and the spirits of the dead sailors. As the ship had not officially been sunk at this time, the British authorities silenced her by using the centuries old Witchcraft Act, making her the last official witch to be tried and found guilty in a British court.note 
  • For most of the 20th century, the British political establishment had recourse to the "D-Notice" system — if all other attempts at persuading a newspaper not to publish had failed, the editor would be hit by a D-Notice officially prohibiting publication on grounds of state security. The system has never been repealed, but has fallen into obsolescence, as the rise of the Internet meant British people curious to discover what they are barred from knowing can get it off the Net. The new name is DSMA Notice. "The system is voluntary, it has no legal authority and the final responsibility for deciding whether or not to publish rests solely with the editor or publisher concerned", according to the official website.
  • In November 1979, the Masjid al-Haram — the holiest site in Islam — was captured by extremist insurgents calling for the House of Saud to be overthrown. In a desperate attempt to prevent word from getting out that the self-appointed "custodians of Mecca" had, in fact, lost control of Mecca, the Saudi government shut down the phones and put heavy restrictions on the media. This backfired terribly, as rumors swirled around that the Grand Mosque had been seized either by Iran-backed Shiites or Americans, which led to riots throughout the Islamic world.
  • During The Arab Spring of the early 2010s, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down his country's entire Internet infrastructure, in an attempt to take the wind out of protesters using social media to spread word of the protests. It backfired massively, and before long Mubarak resigned under pressure.