A dramatic extraterrestrial First Contact scenario on Earth would require a great deal of action on the part of local, state and world leaders. They would have to take measure of the situation; explore the situation to determine if there is a threat to humanity; employ experts in many different fields to study the situation; and communicate to the human population. I put communication last in that line of actions for a reason. It would likely be the last thing scrambling leaders would consider. And yet, in many respects, it is the most important action. That’s especially true if the aliens are either non-threatening or indeterminate in action. In that scenario human reaction becomes the biggest threat, not the aliens themselves. Now I don’t expect that humans will run in fear or riot if faced with a direct alien First Contact event. Awe and wonder would be the first reaction for most humans. But what would happen after that?
There are no events in human history that would compare to First Contact with extraterrestrials on Earth. However, if we chop the fantasy scenario up into smaller bits, we can find some human comparisons. Let’s consider how modern humans react during sudden natural disasters and incidents of terrorism. And in doing so, let’s use time as our form of organization. We’ll develop a flowchart of reaction, and the communication needed to respond to that reaction, from immediate to long-term.
The first rule of thumb in the digital age is that individual civilian communications will lead the way in reaction to any sudden and dramatic event. Those communications include text messages to friends, postings to twitter, pictures on Instagram, and Snapchat messages. The media will catch up quickly, but initially they will utilize those same individual communications to report on what has occurred. This could get out of control quickly as speculation and exaggeration proliferate. It’s critical that the next step occurs as soon as humanly possible.
Made for Television
Media outlets will scramble to get reporters and photographers in place to cover the event. People will turn to television coverage immediately. TV is the superior method of communication in a disaster. The reasons are obvious. TV stations and their networks have many different forms of live broadcast equipment, including weather skycams, helicopters, and live trucks. They have trained on-air professionals and an entire support staff to dedicate to a sudden emergency. TV stations and networks may rely on individual civilian reports, such as spectators phoning into the TV station, Tweets and public Internet posts at first. Soon, though, they will move on to their own reporters and experts. Internet posts will continue to drive some elements of the story, perhaps seeking new directions that the mainstream media has not considered. The experts used by the media will grow larger in stature as the situation progresses. In initial reports they will be first responders, such as police and firefighters. As the emergency organizations deploy more resources those experts will be further up the hierarchical ladder. It may only be a matter of hours before state and national leaders take control of the communication flow.
Governmental leaders will quickly formulate a strategy. In emergencies there are two major issues: putting out the facts and telling people what to do. Putting out the facts is critical. In the initial stages of an emergency there is often an information vacuum. That leaves media outlets to rely on individual civilians for information, as I stated above. The danger is that some of these civilians could exaggerate the facts or even report things that are not true at all. This makes the information vacuum a very dangerous time during an emergency. The authorities know they must get facts out as quickly as possible to fill the vacuum with the truth or in some cases what they want to portray as the truth. Leaders have to be careful at this stage. They could easily lose credibility if the statements of authorities conflict with the statements of civilians. This is an important part of the digital age- authorities are quickly held accountable for statements. If a government downplays a disaster civilian reporters can quickly show the truth, through video and reporting. Conversely, authorities being truthful will have to speak out against false reports coming from members of the public.
If it all sounds rather complicated, that’s because it is. And the events will be moving incredibly fast.
In the short-term, the authorities will use news conferences as the primary form of public briefing. News conferences are easy to stage; they can provide a great deal of information in a short time; and they can be carried live by television and the Internet. You can reach a whole lot of people very quickly with a TV news conference. But you can’t do that forever. In the days and weeks following a Direct First Contact event, governmental leaders will need to put out a steady stream of information and not have time for continuous news conferences. This is where social media comes back into play. Twitter is probably the most used Internet source during social unrest, wars and disasters. That’s because anyone with an account can tweet and hundreds of millions can easily find and follow that Tweet. Twitter requires no network of editors and handlers. The message goes out and followers receive it unfiltered and immediately. Facebook and other social media outlets are not nearly as adaptable and scalable as Twitter. This puts Twitter in the forefront of the crisis communication toolbox and not just initially. It could continue in that role for quite some time, just as it has in U.S. Presidential races.
There would be a massive world-wide interest in a Direct First Contact event at first. Eventually, though, that interest will wane. It may get reignited in spurts based on the drama inherent in an action or a particular piece of new information.
In the medium-term, information would be less immediate and more in-depth. It would consist of world leaders in meetings with experts and many layers of bureaucracy at work. I have stated before that transparency would be critical in keeping humans calm. It needs to continue long after widespread interest dies down. While TV might cover entire meetings in the initial days and weeks, eventually they will tire of such coverage. The Internet is well prepared to take up the cause. Streaming meetings in their entirety would allow all interested people to look in and see what is happening. That would include people with expertise in a specific area, who may not be called to participate. They could evaluate what happens in a meeting and discuss it with colleagues via social media. Those ideas could then reach back to the decision makers.
Even with transparency there will be some degree of speculation occurring in the medium-term and that could allow conspiracy theories and outright lies to grow, especially on the Internet. People will use such communication to attract attention or promote their cause. But transparency can still help. Average Internet users will often police social media themselves by quickly refuting false statements. But those average Internet users need the ammunition of truth to do so. Putting out information, far beyond what may seem of interest to the general public, is essential. There will be some members of the public interested in even the most esoteric of discussions. Those people can help protect against Internet conspiracy theories and misinformation.
I think that this medium-term stage would be the most dangerous for humans in terms of physical threats. It is the point at which terrorists could begin to take action. Politicians could use the situation to rally for their cause. Despots could wield fear to take or solidify control. There will still be a high degree of agitation in the human population in the medium-term. People may seek to use that agitation to their advantage.
Long-term communication becomes easier as the agitation wears off. This could be months or years after the original event. It would depend on the nature of the event itself and the challenges presented. The more decisions we need to make, the greater the agitation and the more complicated the long-term communication needs. Leaders will need to continue to make transparency the hallmark of action. Conspiracy theorists love quiet- because it allows them to interject their own ideas without anything to refute them. I say bury the public in as much live streaming and document release as possible. There is nothing that should not be made public. Let me say that again- there is nothing in a Direct First Contact event that should not be made public. This will be really tough for emergency first responders and governmental leaders. They will see transparency as a threat. Transparency would in fact be their greatest tool for keeping the human population calm.
Where does the flowchart go from there? Hopefully to happy and peaceful times. That level of peace and happiness will likely depend largely on actions taken in the very first minutes, hours and days of a direct extraterrestrial First Contact event.