One lovely evening in late September, yet another sensational news story stunned Georgia.
“Scandalous information has been released by SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence agency. As scientists assert, three gigantic unidentified flying objects are approaching the Earth!” – the first item on Imedi TV’s prime-time newscast solemnly informed viewers on 30 September.
Those at a distance who read the startling story on their computers instantly dismissed it as ridiculous. But Imedi is a nationwide broadcaster viewed by all of Georgia, not just Internet users. For many Georgians, it is their main source of information. So, the state of affairs is not all that ridiculous for those who depend terrestrially on “Imedi” (or “hope” in English).
It is easy to explain why this outlandish report created such an irony.
On 25 September, the weeklyworldnews.com website published a story with an eye-catching title: “Alien Spaceships to Attack Earth In November!” The uninitiated may, at first glance, have thought the sources of this “news” were credible. The online report claimed that the information about aliens’ expected intervention had been released by the SETI Institute and that this threat had even been confirmed by WikiLeaks. Classified documents unearthed by the infamous hacking organization supposedly proved that “NASA and high-level U.S. official are aware of the three spaceships and are making plans to battle the spaceships.”
This information was, of course, only bait for the naïve. It was intended to snare those whose Internet browsing still has not taught them that a lot of information available online is either false or fantastical. But, there are well-tested methods to find one’s bearings in this informational chaos: for example, reference to news agencies credited worldwide for their reliability. At the very least, one should always check firsthand sources, in this particular case SETI and WikiLeaks websites, to confirm reported “news.”
The thing is that, along with reliable news sites, there also exist popular spoof sites and mock editions online. The Onion has perhaps the most celebrated of the satirical news websites with its theonion.com. The weeklyworldnews.com is another popular mock news website – the cyberspace successor of the satirical tabloid Weekly World News, published in the United States from 1979 to 2007 and renowned for its hoax stories. Probably the best-known personage of all preposterous stories perpetrated by this publication was Bat Boy, who became legendary for countless heroic acts and the occasional wicked deed: He fought the war on terror; he led the troops to capture Saddam Hussein; he traveled into outer space; and, among other escapades, he once bit Santa Claus. The weeklyworldnews.com website continues to wreak havoc online. Its recent mischief includes panicking the social networking world by disseminating disinformation that Facebook was closing in 2012, a falsity that has taken on a life of its own.
The weeklyworldnews.com story spun about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) was picked up by many Internet news agencies, including Russian and Georgian websites such as presa.ge and itv.ge. Any confusion on the Internet was soon dispelled – netgazeti.ge published a letter explaining the origin of the weeklyworldnews.com report in clear and simple terms.
Disinformation about the alien invasion nonetheless penetrated the TV domain. There it was not only presented as authentic by the Imedi broadcast, but reported with an air of gravitas deserving of serious prime-time news coverage. Imedi dutifully identified SETI and WikiLeaks as informational sources.
If one tried very hard, maybe some excuse could be found for Imedi TV? Maybe blame should be cast on perpetrators of the original hoax report for their carelessness or maybe on the TV production staff for not bothering themselves to double-check sources? But the way the Imedi TV report unfolded made it clear that outside perpetrators and staff laziness were not solely to blame: To lend credibility to its “news” report, Imedi identified yet another “source” – The Guardian.
The highly reputable British newspaper would undoubtedly be none-too-happy to hear itself described as a “tabloid” by the Georgian TV station, but that is hardly the problem. The Imedi report stated that, “The Guardian carries an article saying that aliens may destroy mankind… To avert aggression on the part of aliens, mankind must greet them calmly.” Imedi TV illustrated its report with an article reproduced from The Guardian website. According to Imedi TV, The Guardian also cited WikiLeaks as a credible source proving that flying objects were indeed fast approaching Earth.
If curiosity motivates you to search The Guardian website for information about flying objects fast approaching Earth, your efforts will be futile. You will find instead the article used as a visual by Imedi TV to illustrate its sensational “news” report. That article from The Guardian website is itself illustrated – with a comical photo of a phony alien zapping actor Jack Nicholson in a scene from the satirical film “Mars Attack.” You will quickly discover that The Guardian article was published two months earlier than the Imedi TV report on the shocking “discovery” of approaching flying objects and that, in fact, the British article has absolutely nothing to do with imminently approaching flying objects. The Guardian article is actually about “a highly speculative scenario” which a group of scientists at Pennsylvania State University has put forth, rather fancifully, to warn humans of the consequences of not curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This whimsical scenario depicts hypothetical encounters between mankind and aliens which, quite obviously, do not rest on any empirical data. At the end of the day, we learn from The Guardian article that, if we want to survive, we must cut emission of greenhouse gases to reduce damage to the ecosystem. If we do that, then hypothetical aliens in outer space will not someday view changes in our planet’s ecosystem as evidence of an out-of-control human civilization that poses an existential threat to the entire galaxy. In short, The Guardian “source” does not in any way confirm the Imedi TV report, although the hypothesis of Pennsylvania State’s imaginative scientists may be of interest to orthodox greens and other zealous environmentalists.
As for The Guardian-WikiLeaks-UFO triumvirate, it seems to have developed in the following way: In a video chat last year with readers of The Guardian, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange responded to rumors about possible publication of classified documents concerning UFOs. Assange at that time said that he possessed documents related to that subject, adding that he did not think they were worth publishing. No doubt the Imedi TV audience was sorely deprived of that “evidence.”
This is not the first time that national Georgian media have spectacularly misinformed their audiences. We have seen TV reports on looming nuclear and global-warming disasters, cancer-causing shampoos, Satan-worshipping teenagers. A few fallacious news reports are not likely to have any major impact on Georgian society – the normal rhythm of life will not be unduly disturbed if people learn about approaching aliens from Imedi TV. The anticipated “threat” may not cause TV viewers to suspend all activities or dramatically alter their lives, but it will definitely serve as yet further proof of Georgian media incompetence.
By the way, the weeklyworldnews.com site is also reporting that the end of the world will come on 21 October 2011. To those with no access to the Internet who rely on Georgian TV as their first source of information, we repeat this disclaimer buried in the final sentence of the ominous report: “Some scientists view this story with skepticism.” And to those reading this Tabula article now, we can confidently report without attribution: “We have all survived!”