Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Plotbot
  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
October 2017

War of the Words

"I'm not going to swear an oath I can't uphold.
When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything.
Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies."
-Jon Snow, Game of Thrones

You might think I use that quote as a veiled political statement about our current president, but you would be wrong. It is an openly political statement about a much larger global dynamic, of which our current president is only one particularly orange example. We have seen this dynamic before.

This month is the seventy-ninth anniversary of the Mercury Theatre on the Air's radio production of War of the Worlds, during which at least thousands and maybe millions of Americans who tuned in late and missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast actually believed that Martians had invaded Grover's Mill, New Jersey. The resulting panic accidentally overwhelmed some of the nation's telephone switchboards, much in the same way as a modern denial-of-service attack might do to an internet server. The newspapers, sensing an opportunity to push back against radio, covered the ensuing legal battles thoroughly (or hyperbolically?). Whatever the reality, that event has reverberated throughout pop culture ever since. Two of my favorite examples, Men in Black and Buckaroo Banzai, reference Grover's Mill specifically, but the general concept of “avoiding a panic” is everywhere, inside and outside of SF.

It's also no secret that the US government was very concerned by those events of 1938. What Annie Jacobsen, a national security reporter for the LA Times, points out in her books is that foreign governments were also fascinated by the possibilities. In her latest, Phenomena, she describes the British use of a syndicated newspaper astrology column to sway American public opinion in favor of joining World War 2.

The way it worked was masterful: the British spy agency first fed information to de Wohl, which he would write up in his column, “Stars Foretell.” The British spy agency then fed the bogus information to the U.S. press, which—unable to fact-check with the Reich—the press would report as real. (p. 15)

She has the declassified documents to back the story up, too. That's what I like about Jacobsen's work; her journalistic cultural traditions line up with my scientific cultural traditions. She names her witnesses and cites her sources. Except this one time, at the end of her first book, Area 51, when an unnamed source reveals to her that the UFO crash outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 was a publicity stunt by Jokin’ Joe Stalin. According to her unnamed source (who has since died), the craft had Russian writing embossed around the inside of it. Supposedly, the Soviets’ captured Nazis were working on different aspects of flight than our captured Nazis (Wernher von Braun and his rocket boys, detailed in Project Paperclip). Theirs had supposedly developed both early stealth technology (embedding radar-absorbing graphite in paint) and some kind of fast hover-drive (possibly electromagnetic, although Area 51 leaker Bob Lazar claimed they were powered by gravity waves). Jacobsen speculates that Stalin was mad about atomic bomb tests in the Pacific and wanted to make the Americans look foolish by recreating the Grover's Mill panic when his “aliens” landed in New Mexico.

Wait—ALIENS? Yes, aliens, or at least alien facsimiles, surgically altered from retarded children by none other than Josef Mengele, the real world equivalent of Captain America’s nemesis the Red Skull, before Stalin double-crossed him and he had to flee to Argentina. Wow. Gonna have to wait for the document dump on that last part (get on it, Anonymous!). Hopefully, Hellboy will be in the same batch of files. He did live in Roswell for a while, as a spawn . . .

On the other, non-stone, hand, we know that both the U-2 and the A-12 Oxcart spy planes were regularly reported as UFOs, because the CIA and Air Force documents that tracked those reports have been declassified. They may have been the majority of sightings at some points in time. Some of the disinformation campaigns around those programs have also been declassified. But Jacobsen says that the Atomic Energy Commission—now the Department of Energy—has a separate double-secret classification system for which even the President does not have enough “need to know.” There is some evidence for this in those AEC radiation experiments, conducted on American citizens without their knowledge, revealed by President Clinton's investigators in the 1990s. Jacobsen claims, through her unnamed Area 51 source, that those radiation experiments were just the beginning. The reason that AEC (now DoE) did not reveal Stalin's grotesque hoax is that they were doing stuff out there in Nevada that was even worse—“medical experiments on handicapped children and prisoners” (p372). It may be that while the growing UFO paranoia was a huge headache for the CIA and especially the Air Force, it didn't really bother AEC because it insulated them from the public.

Fast-forward 70 years, to 2017, and I'll bet it's bothering their successors now, whether they're fans of Jon Snow or not. (Can they even get HBO out at Area 51? Probably got a pretty good satellite dish.) Kate Starbird at the University of Washington in Seattle has started tracking the growth of a scary worldwide network of conspiracy media, which encourages people not to believe in ANYTHING that requires collective action—not climate change, not pandemics that could be prevented by vaccines, not famine that might be alleviated by GMO crops. Starbird is not currently concerned with UFOs, or psychic powers, or cryptids, or life after death. She is specifically tracking the belief that mass shootings and other terrorist attacks are either fake, staged by “crisis actors,” or real but committed by governments trying to consolidate their power (“false flags,” in conspiracy-speak). Her methods and conclusions are introduced in this paper:

This research explores the alternative media ecosystem through a Twitter lens. Over a ten-month period, we collected tweets related to alternative narratives—e.g. conspiracy theories—of mass shooting events. We utilized tweeted URLs to generate a domain network, connecting domains shared by the same user, then conducted qualitative analysis to understand the nature of different domains and how they connect to each other. Our findings demonstrate how alternative news sites propagate and shape alternative narratives, while mainstream media deny them. We explain how political leanings of alternative news sites do not align well with a U.S. left-right spectrum, but instead feature an anti-globalist (vs. globalist) orientation where U.S. Alt-Right sites look similar to U.S. Alt-Left sites. Our findings describe a subsection of the emerging alternative media ecosystem and provide insight in how websites that promote conspiracy theories and pseudo-science may function to conduct underlying political agendas.

Hopefully she will continue this important work, and extend it to include the whole conspiracy / pseudoscience ecosystem. For science and democracy to work, we have to be able to agree on some common set of facts. Although the research is in its early stages, one interesting theme Starbird highlights is the anti-globalist message of these online communities, something that SF has not to my knowledge addressed specifically, despite a long history of thinking about politics. I personally want to point out the anti-technology message, and to suggest that science is the way forward. We have to teach people how to enjoy the process of testing their own ideas, whether through cognitive behavioral therapy or some other set of techniques. David Brin probably touched on this general theme in his Transparent Society almost 20 years ago, when more people were optimistic about internet discussion boards.

I’m not sure the SF story is a good model for this particular problem, because stories really are the creations of a single mind, no matter how many plot balls that single author is juggling. It may be, however, that showing characters struggling with the full complexity of our growing information space, using tools like the ones Professor Starbird details in her paper, along with others like unbiased search engines, will be good enough. I sure hope so.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., has on numerous occasions joked that SF writers could make a lot more money by labeling their work as true the way conspiracy writers do. He still thinks that, but it seems a lot less funny now.

REFERENCES

https://www.bustle.com/p/jon-snows-quote-about-lies-in-the-game-of-thrones-finale-doubles-as-a-plea-for-the-trump-era-80077

https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/dangerous-rise-of-populism

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/08/an-anti-nazi-film-has-its-viral-moment/536739/

Almost 75 years after it was first shown, Don’t Be a Sucker lives again as a public object in a new and strange context.”

http://www.mercurytheatre.info

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/10/30/241797346/75-years-ago-war-of-the-worlds-started-a-panic-or-did-it

Click through to the Radio Lab episode especially. Really good.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/infamous-war-worlds-radio-broadcast-was-magnificent-fluke-180955180/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denial-of-service_attack

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Buckaroo_Banzai_Across_the_8th_Dimension

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_in_Black_(1997_film)

http://anniejacobsen.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun

http://aip.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/1.4953807

New Finnish work on the controversial EM drive makes this less crazy than it sounds at first. It also may upend a lot of work on dark matter and dark energy. Pretty awesome, if it works out, but I’m obviously no judge of that.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Lazar

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Mengele

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Comicbook/RedSkull

http://tinyurl.com/ybbs2m5w

Interestingly, it was not Captain America but Captain Midnight who fought “torn from the headlines” aliens in 1947.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/ComicBook/Hellboy

http://www.atomicheritage.org/location/university-rochester

I used to walk through this building all the time during graduate school.

http://faculty.washington.edu/kstarbi/Alt_Narratives_ICWSM17-CameraReady.pdf

Make sure to check out the network graphs, which are an extremely intuitive way of looking at these data. Very useful for SF purposes, I think.

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/politics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy

http://www.davidbrin.com/transparentsociety.html

Which I still haven't read.

http://www.transparencynow.com

This online book has a theory of media criticism, working towards a science.

https://duckduckgo.com

Doesn’t track you, and more importantly for today’s discussion, doesn’t store your search history for advertising or search filtering purposes.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/06/based-on-a-true-story--geoff-dyer-fine-line-between-fact-and-fiction-nonfiction

I look forward to the days when I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/magazine/rt-sputnik-and-russias-new-theory-of-war.html

These networks can, of course, be manipulated by powerful individuals and governments. This story also introduces another researcher, John Kelly, working on the same kinds of information maps as Professor Starbird. According to him, the Russians are “trying to pump up the fringe at the expense of the middle.”

Read more by Randall Hayes


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