Monday, February 6, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Fake News

Fake news is one of the most challenging communication issues we face today. Fake news stories have been lurking around social media for several years. But the number and impact of those fake stories seems to have grown during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
For many years political leaders and the media have been hesitant to mention incorrect information and fake news that is trending on social media, perhaps not wanting to legitimize such posts. I think the torrent of fake news and the impact of such stories is changing that. The social media user who shot up a pizza restaurant in Washington over a fake news story is a dramatic example. However, such stories don’t have to involve gunfire to be extremely damaging. This makes it imperative for media, law enforcement and government representatives to respond to the big rumors and fake news stories immediately.
Back to the blog topic: What challenges would fake news present during an alien first contact event?  We can’t predict what aliens would want or do, or even if that will ever occur. However, we can look at current events to see how humans react to other public stressors, such as a nasty political race or communication during a disaster.

The first challenge would be misinformation during the initial hours of extraterrestrial Direct First Contact. Direct First Contact can be described as aliens (or robotic representatives) landing on Earth or contacting us from our solar system, to say hello. Confusion, exaggeration and other such misinformation during a First Contact event would be a huge problem. This can been seen during disasters here on Earth. In the initial minutes and hours observer social media posts dominate the discussion. It’s logical, since more authoritative sources need time to respond. While, people on the scene can post immediately, professionals know to double-check information before they make it public. Members of the public simply let their fingers fly.
But soon others will realize that they can cause confusion and fear through fake news or disinformation. Misinformation happens due to human error. Disinformation is an active campaign to spread untrue information.

I would imagine that fake news would at first be conducted by people who are amused by causing trouble. However, the next groups to latch onto the fake news technique will have specific agendas: political, monetary, and social goals. These fake news disseminators will be trying to influence the public for a focused reason. The fake news could be just one part of all sorts of social media mayhem created by people who are trying to influence the public. We saw quite a bit of that happen during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Partisanship was certainly the big driver in the presidential social media battle.

So, would partisanship drive fake news in a First Contact event? And what groups would be battling?  I would imagine the big debate would be between those strongly in favor of a relationship with extraterrestrials and those completely opposed to such a relationship. The drivers would be excitement and optimism on the one side and fear on the other side. The bigger the debate in public, the more partisan forces will be tempted to use fake news to influence people. The dangerous part is that both sides would have legitimate concerns. Using fake news and disinformation to promote their agenda could cause huge issues in the public arena. It would drive the debate to extremes at either end of the spectrum, and drown out nuanced, moderate responses.

Media outlets, the law enforcement community, and government representatives, will have to correct confusion, exaggeration and fake news immediately. It is critical that someone in these agencies monitor trending topics on the major social media sites and develop a response plan. It could be a simple refutation of the top ten trending confused, incorrect or fake social media posts. Such statements should always be capped with a reminder that there is going to be much incorrect and fake information out there. People need to know they can’t trust all communication, even from friends and family. Members of the public must be encouraged to double-check information before reacting.

Alien Direct First Contact would cause anxiety for many humans across the globe. If incorrect information and fake news is allowed to grow in audience, that human anxiety could turn to civil unrest and violence.

Are our institutions prepared to respond quickly to incorrect information and fake news? Perhaps not as quickly as would be needed. Each media outlet, law enforcement agency and government office would need to assign a team to the problem immediately. Corrections and denunciations of such social media postings are not something that could wait an hour or two. They would need to happen immediately in news coverage and be featured prominently in news conference by authorities or scientists.

The response would need to be continued in the long-term. Some of the most damaging fake news could be quite hard to dispel. It may take weeks or months of work to keep fake news and incorrect information at bay.

Transparency is the best weapon against fake news. If people can disseminate and monitor entire meetings and news conferences about alien First Contact, it will be tougher for fake news to worm its way into the public discussion. That means a long-term effort by organizations, scientists, governmental leaders, and media outlets to stream meetings live on the Internet and for reporters and others to sum up the most important points online and in news reports. That will be easy in the short-term, while interest is quite high. It will be tougher, and in many respects more important, in the long-term as public interest wanes.

Dissemination of true information, the correction of incorrect news, and the response to fake news will be among the most important human activities in the wake of extraterrestrial First Contact. But we can’t expect our institutions to be the only ones responsible for screening the fake news and raising a red flag. Individual social media consumers, you and I, will need to check questionable posts and then respond if we find that post is incorrect or fake. Critical thinking and quick response, may be the glue that holds human society together during what would be, arguably, the biggest event in human history.

1 comment:

Webby the Grey said...

There will always be fake news because of so many people's tendency to repeat what they've heard with their own biasses filtering and distorting the information. Many seem entirely incapable of reporting what they see without interpretation. This plus the general tendency to mistrust would more than likely mean disaster if first contact ever occurs.