Monday, August 12, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: Post it on You Tube?

I thank the readers of this blog for providing great insight over the years. There are not many of you out there, but those who are reading tend to have thoughtful and well-considered ideas about the aspects of alien First Contact that are rarely discussed.

Mark from Australia had an interesting thought about the use of social media in a First Contact scenario. I have proposed using the traditional media to bypass national governments, allowing extraterrestrials to reach all humans at once and perhaps start a process of diplomacy with the United Nations. Mark wonders if some sort of landing, and the resulting video sharing, pictures and social media posts it would produce, could mean that the aliens wouldn’t even have to worry about the traditional media.

The idea of social media or internet contact of some kind is interesting. I suppose it really comes down to a matter of control. Aliens may not care how we react. They may not have a specific agenda that requires a certain response from us. If so, merely sending a signal from outer space in the areas we are currently searching would be the easiest method of contact. However, if aliens did want a specific reaction they would want to carefully control the process. I know that sounds a bit devious, and it certainly could be, but controlling the process isn't devious, in and of itself. It's something those of us in the PR profession do all of the time. We control not only the message, but also the way in which the message is delivered, in order to achieve the reaction and response we hope for. The traditional media is easy to understand, because they have set patterns of behavior. The same could be said of law enforcement and military personnel. If you have a good idea of how these groups might react you can design the process to get the response that you want. That's why my main character Alex, in my novel the “Ashland City Landing”, chooses a public landing designed specifically for the media response. The reason is simple: to bypass individual national governments and get straight to the United Nations.

Let’s get back to social media possibilities. Aliens might want to issue a message to the entire human race, without going to the trouble or taking the risk of appearing in person. If so, they could start out with a signal from space, for scientists to “discover” and then follow up with a You Tube video greeting for the human public. It would be impossible for any government to block such a message and it would be taken seriously if the signal that had already be sent through space was confirmed by scientists as being outside of possible human creation. In First Contact, disproving the hoax will be the primary issue. There is so much crazy material on the internet currently, there would have to be some clear and verifiable evidence that messages were coming from extraterrestrials and not human jokesters. This is no small matter and devising the method of evidence would be critical to any First Contact scenario in which the aliens are making contact with us.

Putting a video on You Tube or staging a landing event for humans to disseminate via social media could work, but it would be highly problematic, given the vast number of hoax messages and scams on the internet. One of the currently hot social media news sites is Reddit. In the case of first contact one could expect many posts on Reddit and in a time frame quicker than the traditional media. That might be fine for video of an alien craft or news of some sort of landing, but what can it really do beyond that? Sites like Reddit have no safeguards for accuracy. The New York Times Magazine recently examined how Reddit posts propagated false suspect rumors in the Boston Marathon case.

So, in short, yes, social media could certainly be used for First Contact. But the use of social media has many negatives. The primary weakness would be lack of control. You can hope that certain actions will happen with social media, but those actions are not nearly as predictable as events tied to the traditional media, especially television news media in the United States. In the end, predictability is your friend if you wish to make contact with humans. It allows you to plan a series of events and have a reasonable expectation that they will occur in that fashion.

There is also the overall issue of authority. The traditional news media, scientists and law enforcement hold positions of authority in our society. When those institutions talk, people listen. Social media does not have that kind of clout, just due to its populist nature. I would imagine that even respected scientists would be less likely to announce First Contact in a Tweet or Facebook post, than they would in a news conference on TV. And certainly material posted on sites like Reddit would be viewed with a critical eye, with preference given to those sources that hold traditional authority. Our old institutions still have great power in our society, even if that power is changing as the internet grows in new ways.

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