Ideas

Brainiac

Alien detection in the age of social media

If we detect aliens, Facebook and Twitter will surely melt down from the hysteria of it all.

Anticipating that, a pair of astronomers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has released a set of recommendations for how to distribute news of detection. It is meant as an update to a communications plan first adopted by the alien-hunting organization SETI in 1989.

“We don’t have the luxury of keeping things secret in the world anymore. Leaks and rumors can fly, so you just need to be transparent. Make the dataset public immediately so there’s no accusations of foul play,” says Duncan Forgan, coauthor of the new recommendations titled “#FoundThem — 21st Century Pre-Search and Post-Detection SETI Protocols for Social and Digital Media.”

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Current SETI protocols include nine steps. The first two instruct the scientist to verify the signal and share it with other SETI researchers. The third says to get in touch with the secretary general of the United Nations.

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Forgan is more concerned with heading off conspiracy theories. To do that, he thinks any detection should be posted online and shared widely even before it’s confirmed or national authorities are notified. That way, should it check out, everyone can feel good knowing they were in on the milestone all along.

Yet given the way the search for aliens is currently conducted, there’s no chance a detection could ever be kept secret: One scientist would call another who would tell her family who would share the news with relatives, all long before any national government perked up enough to bury the news.

“If we find ET, you’ll read about it first in the check-out line,” says Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “I don’t think there’s any chance of it being hidden.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.