Nov 12 2012

Bugged by UFOs

UK UFO enthusiasts recently called a meeting to discuss the future of the UFO movement, specifically whether or not there is going to be one. Numbers of groups and members are plummeting as enthusiasm for talking about the latest Chinese lantern to be misidentified as a flying saucer is waning.

If history is any guide this is just a temporary generational downturn, and interest in UFOs will eventually rebound. It is possible, however, that the most recent decline is more than just the usual cycle. Perhaps the internet has changed the game, allowing for rapid turnaround of possible UFO stories. Before the ink would be dry on traditional print media, the new social media can debunk UFO stories and nip them in the bud.

Here is an excellent example: Mile High mystery: UFO sightings in sky over Denver. The beginning of the news report (it is just crappy local news, but it’s a Fox affiliate which means such stories can be picked up nationally) has all the red flags for sensational mystery mongering:

Strange objects caught on camera flying over the city and nobody can explain it.

We first learned about these sightings when a metro area man, who does not want to be identified brought us his home video. He captured the images on his digital camera from a hilltop in Federal Heights looking south toward downtown Denver.

He said, “The flying objects appear around noon or 1:00 p.m. at least a couple of times a week.” The strangest part is they are flying too fast to see with the naked eye, but when we slowed down the video, several UFOs appear.

The objects are not so strange, they actually are not appearing “over” the city, and there are probably millions of people who can explain it. The fact that the source of the video of the “UFOs” would not be identified is a problem. Finally we learn that no one actually saw the UFOs – they were only noticeable after reviewing the video, which itself is a red flag that perhaps this is a common video phenomenon, not an uncommon UFO phenomenon.

Take a look at the video and try to figure out what it is before reading further.

OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. The classic cases like Roswell can only be picked over so many times.  The signal to noise ratio in UFO reporting has always been low (I would argue, zero) but now there seems to be a high incidence of truly worthless evidence.

Another way to look at this is that as cameras and videos have become ubiquitous, one would think that if UFOs were a real alien phenomenon we would start to see an increasing amount of genuine and compelling digital evidence. This has not occurred, and rather we have seen an increase in low quality noise, like bugs, birds, and lanterns. As digital technology has advanced we have also seen an increase in digital fakes, but the same technology allows for their identification.

The internet makes all this happen very quickly. By the time someone sees a video online and then tells their friend about it, someone else in their group is likely to point them to a response video in which the source picture or video that was manipulated was found, revealing the whole thing as a fraud. This rapid turnaround means that when talking about such things in your social group it pays to be skeptical, otherwise you are likely to be on the embarrassing end of an exposed hoax or mistake. After a couple of episodes of being proved immediately and objectively wrong, many people might think, “Hmm…perhaps I should check this out on Snopes before I tell my friends we finally made contact with aliens and look like an idiot again.”

Being internet savvy is now part of being socially savvy, and being skeptical is an essential part of being internet savvy.

This is, at least, an optimistic view of things. I don’t think there has been a fundamental change in human nature, and interest in UFOs is not going to disappear. Perhaps it has moved a bit more onto the fringe. It can survive in the conspiracy community, like a virus that can survive in a non-human population only to return when resistance is low or it has mutated a new strain.

The equation has changed, however. Access to information has increased in amount and speed, allowing for rapid crowd sourcing of new claims. We are much less dependent on traditional media for our information, and stories can barely take root before they are destroyed by accurate information.

Fox31 and everyone involved in this story should be embarrassed by the sloppy and sensational reporting.  Because of the internet, they will be.

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