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Scientists leading the search for extra-terrestrial life say alien contact might fall victim to fake news

01 July 2019

A group of researchers known as the UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN) warn that a post-detection policy for contact with aliens will need to reflect our current media landscape, including the perils of immediate social media, where such an announcement would either be lost in the noise or taken as fodder for fake news.

The team will be canvassing public perception of contact at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in July 2019. It will be the largest survey of the public and their sentiment towards extra-terrestrials and the topics surrounding: their thoughts on contact, whether or not to respond, the resulting course of action, and which sources of news they would trust in such an eventuality.

Lead exhibitor, Dr Martin Dominik said: “After receiving an initial transmission, weeks, months, or even many years could pass before a substantial message is decoded. A lot can happen in this time. Traditionally, unfolding news could be managed to some degree, but now we have social media and fake news—persuasive forces that can drive decisions, and this is something we have to consider.”

The UKSRN is made up of active researchers from the sciences, humanities, and arts, and will be joined by colleagues from the Berkeley SETI Research Center, who are involved in the Breakthrough Listen project, which has just publicly released their first set of data.

Co-ordinator of the UKSRN and co-exhibitor, Dr John Elliott, added: “As we analyse these signals, initial findings on the structure may be rapid, but as we look deeper into the structure and possible meaning, there are likely to be periods of silence, while these complex tasks are performed. These periods could present an information vacuum—a delay between the analysts and the public. In such an atmosphere, fear and speculation could thrive, so we need to ensure such unnecessary conjecture is minimised by ensuring the public is informed and on the same page.”

Dr Dominik further points out: “We simply do not know whether there is any intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, and how common it is. We may never receive a radio signal from extra-terrestrial intelligence, but what if we do? Should we reply? Should we proactively seek contact, or rather keep a low profile?”

Alongside their survey, the team will be exhibiting different aspects of their SETI research to the public, including the DISC Quotient (the Decipherment Impact of a Signal’s Content), the quotient that describes our current understanding of a signal, as well as discussing the existential and philosophical implications of life beyond Earth.

Find out more about the Summer Science Exhibition, held at the Royal Society 1 - 7 July 2019.

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