29Oct2017

Beware The Astronomy ‘Fake News’

Has anyone ever tried to comfort you by saying, “it's not the end of the world” ...

Has anyone ever tried to comfort you by saying, “it’s not the end of the world” …

I’ve been writing Doomsday Debunking articles for a couple of years now. The amount of fake news about the end of the world on the web is incredible. What makes it worse is that the world is about to end get widely shared.

They are  linked to, read over and over, and rise right to the top of Google and Apple news. If you are intrigued by a news story about the search for “planet X” by astronomers, say, and go to Google News, the top result is usually one or other article from the Daily Express who regularly publish fake news saying that an extra planet is about to hit Earth or fly past Earth in the next week or month.This is followed by pages and pages of search results consisting almost entirely of “news” in a similar vein. It takes a fair bit of searching to find the genuine astronomy news amongst all this nonsense.

Of course, prophecies of the end of the world are nothing new. But what is new is how easy it is for very young children and young adults to stumble across them. Also because they naively think of Google News as just “news” the stories seem to them to be respectable stories with a mark of authority.

Many people nowadays grow up reading Apple and Google news on their mobile devices. They walk around messaging each other, and reading stories shared on their mobile devices. Most of them rarely look at the sky, or at least, rarely give it much attention, either in the day or at night. Many of the children and young adults who contact me have

  • Never seen the Moon in the daytime sky before – although it’s been there at some point during the day nearly every cloudless day of their life except close to full moon (when it is only visible from sunset to sunrise) and new moon (when it is such a thin sliver of a crescent, so close to the Sun that it can’t be seen).
  • Never noticed that the Sun rises in a different place every day
  • Don’t know how to find the pole star in the night sky and don’t know that the stars wheel around the pole star as the night progresses
  • Have never noticed that the sun often lights up bright patches in the sky on cloudy days, far from the actual sun in the sky, and often even at the opposite side of the sky from the Sun.
  • Have never tried to photograph the sun and don’t know that if you try to photograph the sun with your mobile device, you are going to get lens flares from the bright glare of the sun, or offset double reflections if you photograph through tilted glass or a misaligned filter.

As a result, if they are young, or aren’t particularly interested in astronomy or science – they become easy prey to the most outrageous hoaxes and urban myths. They then go to google news on their mobile device, and the top story tells them that we have two suns, say, or that we have an extra planet which is about to hit Earth or fly past Earth. They may get told that NASA is hiding this second sun or extra planet from us with giant mirrors in the sky – or that astronomers know about them but don’t tell us to avoid scaring us – and they believe this nonsense!

Image result for end of world news report

This is a serious problem. It’s not just the misinformation and people growing up with this totally fake astronomy education. These stories are also scary, especially for young children, or young parents with babies, because they usually also tell them that the world is about to end in the next week or month or some other short timescale. Children get very scared that they will never get a chance to grow up and young parents are similarly scared that their babies will never grow to maturity.

People of any age can fall for this hoax and highly educated people at university too (with no background in astronomy of course). But from the PM’s sent to me, the ones most vulnerable and who get most scared most often are young children, and young parents.

If you follow google news about the end of the world avidly, you’ll have read many recent stories at the top of Google news search results telling you that the world will end, or dramatic and horrible things will happen like huge earthquakes, Earth splitting in two, etc on:

  • September 23 (followed by a YouTube video claiming that it would really be Sept 24)
  • October 5
  • October 15
  • October 21
  • October 31
  • November 17

That’s more than once a week on average. Each of those dates scared young children and young adults. It’s now become commonplace that they post relieved and joyful “we have survived” messages from around the world to our Facebook group as these dates roll over to the next day, wherever they live. The prophecies don’t normally specify a time of day and of course the dates change at different places depending where they live, which often leads to a lot of discussion about when exactly the world is supposed to end.

I’m sure we’ll have many more of these dates in November. Then December is the worst time of the year for this. Many people look forward to Christmas and they get especially scared by stories that say that the world is about to end before Christmas so this is one of the top times for these stories to be shared – and it’s also the top time for the people who write these stories to make up new dates to scare people – for fame, notoriety, clicks and views, or ad revenue.

These stories really do scare people. Especially young children. Children as young as 13 – the youngest age for Facebook, contact me. And according to David Morrison in his presentation to the Astronomy Society of the Pacific in 2012, then younger children of 11 and 12 also often get scared by this. We just hear about them indirectly on Facebook, occasionally, through their parents.

And when we say scared, it’s not just a bit scared. They get panic attacks, vomiting, sometimes in tears as they write their messages, can’t sleep, can’t eat, sometimes hospitalized because their bodies become so weak from the physical side effects of all this fear. They are often suicidal too. They want to kill themselves to avoid this awful anxiety about the world ending. It’s a level of fear and anxiety that many of us have never experienced and can hardly imagine. There are at least two cases of children who have killed themselves as a result of such stories, and David Morrison says that he heard of many more (that he couldn’t confirm).

It’s awful. In the run up to Sept 23 – which most of you will have never heard of but avid followers of Google News will recognize as the top story on the end of the world for many weeks through to September – then I was contacted by so many scared children that I stopped all my other work just to answer their scared PM’s and Facebook posts. Luckily I’m self employed and my business is able to run itself with only a few support questions – so I could do this. I would wake up every morning to scared PM’s I’d missed during the night. During the day I was getting many PM’s every hour. Dozens an hour sometimes. From scared and sometimes suicidal young children and young parents usually.

This went on for the entire week up to Sept 23. I didn’t want to leave my computer because I would miss scared PM’s from them when they might be in a fragile emotional state, it was that bad. Heart breaking.

I have still not got back to work on anything else, a month later, spending most of my time answering their PM’s and comments on Facebook and writing Doomsday debunking posts.

Luckily I’m not the only one, and we now have quite a few in the Doomsday Debunked group who help field their questions. Also there are many other Facebook groups to help them, and there are several there who have been doing this for a long time, some for a very long time, like Dave Greg.

Sadly there are other Facebook groups that promote this fake astronomy. Our groups typically have hundreds of members. One of the fake astronomy Facebook groups set up to promote this idea that the world is about to end as a result of Nibiru hitting or flying past Earth has over seventeen thousand members. Try this Facebook search for groups with Nibiru in the title. Nibiru is Nuts and Nibiru Debunked 2017 are Nibiru debunking groups.

Related image

The rest, some with thousands of members, mostly promote this idea that this fake planet exists and is a major danger to Earth. There are dozens of YouTube channels also, some with thousands of subscribers and millions of views, promoting the same message. Faced with this onslaught of fake astronomy from Google News, Facebook and YouTube, our work debunking this nonsense sometimes feels a bit like trying to hold back the incoming tide with a sand castle.

Still it is also heart warming to see the successes. Young children who were so scared just a few days or weeks early who post to the group or PM me saying they are now happy again and no longer scared of Nibiru or of the world ending :).

This is a major societal problem I think. I have yet to see any news stories about the effect of these fake astronomy doomsdays on young children or young adults, in any of the newspapers. Even when David Morrison, very distinguished NASA scientist, raised the issue in 2012, then none of the papers seemed to give it any attention at all. I don’t know of any major news story (in the likes of NY Times, Washington Post, Fox News, the Times, Independent, Guardian, etc etc) that even mentions this issue.

Many of the children who came to my group were so distressed, that I think it is entirely possible that some who never found us in time may have committed suicide. Young teenagers, we are talking about here, who may have killed themselves for a totally fake story of the world ending.

These stories can have a long term effect on them continuing for months or even years after they realize that they are BS. They have experienced extremes of anxiety for weeks or months, and have had an education in fake astronomy – and it becomes very hard for them to learn real astronomy. They have also developed a fear and suspicion of real astronomy and they tend to think that any new astronomy story is a story about the possible end of the world. They have no idea of distance scales and can get scared even by stories about distant galaxies millions or even billions of light years away – often asking us “does this endanger Earth?”. They have become primed to be scared of any story in astronomy.

Image result for end of world stories

David Morrison called this “Cosmophobia” but I don’t think it is a real phobia like a fear of spiders. It’s more like a learnt fear. A habit that’s built up over reading numerous stories and watching numerous videos all saying the world is about to end and all based on fake astronomy.

The reason I say this is because I keep in touch with them, hear back from them from time to time, and they say that their fear gradually fades away once they stop reading this fake news and watching the fake videos. For some they just see through it right away and are no longer scared. But for others it takes a long time.

Even a year later, after they realize intellectually that it is all nonsense, some of them are still often scared with panic attacks. It’s one of the FAQ’s in the group:

“How do you cope with your continuing fear of the world ending after you have seen through the stories and know that they are nonsense?”

So what are the causes and what can we do about it? Well Google and Apple News are responsible for a lot of these issues.

GOOGLE AND APPLE NEWS

Is there any way we can bring pressure on Google and Apple news to label fake astronomy and fake science stories? Also to prioritize articles written by astronomers?

Here is an example, searching for “Planet X” in google news. This is of course a genuine astronomical term for the search for a planet in the outermost reaches of the solar system, probably many times the distance to Pluto. “Planet X”, a term coined by Percival L

ovell for the search for Pluto, has become the term astronomers use for any hypothesis for a new planet in our solar system.

These “planet X” candidates are always distant planets that orbit usually many times the distance to Neptune if they exist. An astronomer would never hypothesize a new planet that flies past Earth, as it is easy to prove, from basic physics that dates back to sir Isaac Newton and his theory of universal gravitation, that such a planet is totally impossible.

Here I’m simulating a search from the US (I’m in the UK) so it’s not biased by my own search activity. It’s using a tool developed by Google for use by Adwords advertisers.

No genuine astronomical news story there yet.It’s all this BS about the world about to be destroyed yet again on November 17.

You have to scroll a fair way down the first page to find a genuine astronomy story in the independent. Most people will never scroll far enough to see it.

Out of 17 stories on the first page of results,- the only genuine astronomy story is this one by the Independent: Planet X: There might be a planet on the edge of our solar system, says Nasa, but it’s not going to kill us all

The rest is all sensationalist fake astronomy. And even the Independent story has a commentary story on it by the Daily Star with its BS story equating the genuine search for a planet beyond Pluto with the nonsense idea of an extra planet about to hit or fly past Earth – Planet X BOMBSHELL: NASA finally admits alien world hiding on edge of Solar System

The Independent is a general UK newspaper, not specializing in science though it does have decent science reporters.

The first page of news on Google has nothing at all from news sites with astronomically trained news reporters like Sky and Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, Astronomy Now, Earth Sky, Universe Today etc etc.

How far do we have to go to find a story like that?

There are no stories like this until near the end of page 8, set to 10 results to a page. There at last we read a story written by astronomers on an astronomy news site: New clues emerge for the existence of planet 9

This is typical. Search for “planet X” on Google News at any time and this is the usual situation. You find pages of sensationalist fake news and nonsense, most about this mythical fake planet “Nibiru”, with occasional stories by more sober papers, perhaps one to a page. Meanwhile the most accurate and detailed news written by astronomers is buried way down the search results and rarely gets to the front page. You can use this tool to simulate a search from any country without your own search history bias to confirm this for yourself.

I think this is a significant and serious issue. An entire new generation is growing up with this as their main astronomical education.

It’s especially significant since astronomy is rarely taught in any depth at school – and hardly at all for those without an interest in science. This is how our less scientific youngsters are getting educated in astronomy!

Nowadays many of them don’t bother with ordinary newspapers, and don’t visit particular news sites, but just go to Google or Apple news for their news. And they don’t have the background to see that these stories are nonsense. So Google and Apple news and other news aggregates have a huge responsibility for our youngsters. Not that they intend to indoctrinate them or anything, but by the simple process of trying to provide news aggregation, they have ended up in this situation where their computer algorithms which they use to present news aggregates to children have an enormous influence on their education.

YOUTUBE VIDEOS

There are many Youtube “Prophets for Profit” who churn out video after video saying the world will end. Recently the worst garbage online website Express ran  a story saying the world is going to split in two like an egg on October 31. This went right to the top of Google Search results and right now, there are many young children still at home, still at school, who are scared that the world is going to split like an egg on Halloween. They have read this in Google News and so think it is true.

The 31st October date was based on a fake video uploaded to YouTube. The idea of the world splitting in two may have been a journalistic embellishment, or perhaps it was in the video as it has now been taken down.

There is an entire small industry based around these fake videos. The top earners can earn their uploaders often thousands of dollars a month, and the top earners may be earning as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year  (upper end of the estimate for this channel from Social Blade).

It’s an easy living for those with no social conscience, just from uploading videos saying the world is about to end, over and over, changing dates as the old videos become out of date. They also sell books, and doomsday supplies, and there is one entrepreneur who rents out space in bunkers in Eastern Germany to millionaires scared of Nibiru. It’s surely at least a multi-million dollar industry. This fake news also sometimes promotes books in Amazon .  Adapted Science2.0

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