Trying to cover up something has always found a way to get exposed and had backfired for many prominent people in history. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology has found that secret-keeping takes a physical toll on subjects. Some people let it out just to take the credit of the original plot or out of stress. Here are the 10 best examples of major cover-ups backfiring.
1. The “Streisand Effect” is a phenomenon in which the information intended to be censored or removed increases the possibility of the unintended consequence of publishing that information more widely. It was named after Barbara Streisand. Her private house pictures gained wide popularity after she sued the photographer.
The singer Barbara Streisand in 2003 sued photographer Kenneth Adelman for photographing her Malibu house. The pictures were seen by only a few when she decided to proceed legally. But once the news of this cover-up broke, hundreds and thousands started to seek these pictures online.
She and her lawyers inadvertently brought so much attention to the pictures they wanted to be unpublished. The name took off after Mike Masnick of Techdirt.com covered one more such incident, and since then, whenever such phenomena came up, the name was used. Due to the viral nature of the Internet, this eventually evolved into a theory.
If you try to suppress something, it only brings more attention to it. One more such incident happened when the Trump administration decided to cut the enrollment period and funds to promote and advertise for ACA. As the news about this spread, more and more people signed up and there was a huge spike in sign-ups. (Source)
2. Karen Gay Silkwood, a chemical technician who tried to expose unethical practices at the nuclear facility where she worked, died in a car crash on her way to meet a New York Times journalist. After medical examiners found traces of plutonium contamination on her, an investigation was launched into the company, which mysteriously shut down a year after her death. The company was also sued, and it settled out of court for the US $1.38 million.
Silkwood was a chemical technician at Kerr-McGee Plutonium Fuels in Oklahoma. She was also an activist for plant safety. Silkwood died in a fatal car crash, and her story achieved worldwide fame because she was reportedly gathering evidence that Kerr-McGee was negligent when it came to plant safety. Silkwood, as an activist, had to prove it to her union, who also at the time was worried about its members being exposed to plutonium.
She became concerned when she found out about quality-control failures and lack of safety procedures. After her car crashed, the folders containing her evidence were never found. This seems bizarre and brought more attention to the plant she was working for. The doctors testified that she was at risk of contracting radiation poisoning.
The plant closed the year after her death, partly strengthening the claims that they were trying to cover up and their incapability of dismissing her claims by portraying her as an addict. However, according to Time, the company that was buying fuel rods from Kerr McGee complained of their poor quality and refused to renew the contract. (1, 2)
3. Volkswagen was fined for violating the Clean Air Act for using so-called “defeat devices” to cheat on emission tests in 1974. The company was accused again in September 2015, 41 years after the first defeat device scandal. The company had to pay 4.3 billion dollars as a penalty and six executives were charged.
Volkswagen was going through a major push to sell diesel cars in the US. They were backed up by a marketing campaign focusing on its low emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency later found that the cars sold in the US have a “defeat device” of sorts, or software attached to the diesel engines, that can sense test scenarios. In such cases, the software senses the testing by capturing monitoring speed, engine operation, and the position of the steering wheel.
When cars operated under these conditions, the device puts the car in a safety mode so that the engine ran below the original performance and power. By changing these aspects, the company managed to pass the emission tests of the American standards, but this cover-up came out eventually.
The company has also been accused of modifying software on three-liter diesel engines that are used in some Porsche, Audi, and VW models. VW admitted that almost 11 million cars worldwide are fitted with these devices. These engines emit nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times than what is allowed in the US. (Source)
4. The Watergate Scandal was a major political scandal involving the administration of US President Richard Nixon that led to his resignation. The scandal stemmed from the Nixon administration’s continual attempts to cover up its involvement in the June 17, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C. Watergate Office Building.
The Watergate Scandal started on June 17, 1972. Several burglars were arrested at the office of the Democratic National Committee. The political climate was so hostile at that point that the Republican President, Richard M. Nixon, had to launch a forceful reelection campaign.
This turned out to include illegal espionage. Top secret documents at the Watergate headquarters were stolen and office phones were bugged.
Five of the perpetrators were arrested and the US Justice Department was able to connect the cash found to Nixon’s Reelection Committee. Witnesses testified that the President himself had approved the cover-up plans, which led to the impeachment process against Nixon.
Nixon’s abuse of presidential power had a long-lasting effect on American political life after the efforts to cover up began unraveling in 1974. The Watergate Scandal added further disappointment to the national climate along with the Vietnam War and assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. (Source)
5. The Soviets tried to cover up the Chernobyl Disaster. After the explosion, the intercity telephone network was cut off. Workers and engineers of the power plant were prohibited from contacting their friends and family. This led to rumors, and the cover-up by the Soviets led to a major delay in helping civilians to keep from being exposed to the radiation.
The Kremlin tried to cover up the disaster. The explosion took place on the night of 25th April, but the authorities did not release the news to the 30,000 inhabitants in the nearby town of Pripyat until April 27.
Within days, strong levels of radiation were felt in Scandinavia. The Kremlin’s effort to keep it silent was in vain. On April 29th, the London Times reported a “Huge nuclear leak” at the Soviet plant. The Soviet authorities had to respond to it even though they were reluctant. Western correspondents in Moscow started to realize the things that were unfolding at this point.
In hindsight, one of the most disturbing aspects of the cover-up was that the Moscow authorities let the May Day Parade in Kyiv go as normal to convince people that everything was under control. But those who celebrated holidays in the streets put themselves at the risk of exposing themselves to radiation. (Source)