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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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.”
Click through to the Radio Lab episode especially. Really good.
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.
Interestingly, it was not Captain America but Captain Midnight who fought “torn from the headlines” aliens in 1947.
I used to walk through this building all the time during graduate school.
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.
Which I still haven't read.
This online book has a theory of media criticism, working towards a science.
Doesn’t track you, and more importantly for today’s discussion, doesn’t store your search history for advertising or search filtering purposes.
“I look forward to the days when I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history.”
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