Anatomy of a non-news story: man who was on moon saw UFO, or not

Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, saw something alien on the way up there. That’s a meme that has been circulating on the internet (and before the internet) like a piece of space junk — or in this case news junk.

That same story re-entered the news orbit on April 9 with a trajectory that highlighted how “fake news” spreads – often about subjects more important than this. The hook was that elderly former astronaut, Aldrin, had passed a lie-detector test about seeing an “unidentified flying object” in the moments after entering space from launch on the July 1969 mission to the moon.

Within hours of a fresh-but-still-patently-implausible take on the Aldrin aliens story in British tabloid The Daily Star, the story also surfaced on theoretically more serious publications The Daily Mail online edition and The Independent. The first repeated the story as a kind of factual report but carried no byline. The “Indy” took a different approach, a sort of “don’t believe a word of it but do read this mad story” version.

Given that the story — regardless of veracity – was the second-trending topic in science in Google News, it was probably worth piling into if your business model relies on clicks to drive its advertising model. [Eds note: WikiTribune does not run advertising.]

When a story really is fake

The facts behind the story and the way it started spreading from a newspaper which is the equivalent of an American supermarket tabloid are prosaic. They’re also typical of how a truly fake story (as opposed to a story where facts are in doubt or the deliberate spread of misinformation) gains momentum. A supposedly expert study from an official-sounding organization gets spun into an “exclusive” which because of its very nuttiness is highly shareable on social media.

The Daily Star “exclusive” quoted an obscure Ohio alternative health non-profit called the Institute of BioAcoustic Biology. If you want to know what that is, it is associated with a woman called Sharry Edwards who describes herself on her website as “The Modern Keeper of The Holy Grail.” Edwards is quoted in the Daily Star as saying her organization analyzed audio recordings of four astronauts in a process the news site likened to a “lie detector” thus allowing the headline: “‘I saw a UFO’ Buzz Aldrin PASSES lie detector test revealing truth about aliens.” Edwards also claims to treat autism, high cholesterol and other ailments.

The next story purportedly written by the same Daily Star reporter was: “‘Elvis Presley killed himself’ Ex-wife Priscilla in shock claim.'” Stories competing for attention in the Daily Star with the Aldrin “story” included: “Secret walks your dog will go crazy for” and a story about someone called “Miss Bum Bum” who won a bottom competition.

Alleged source says it’s old

Sharry Edwards told WikiTribune that Daily Star reporters never contacted her,  nor did her office release new information on Buzz Aldrin’s voice recording. As far as she can tell, the story is based off a post she made in 2008 based on a YouTube video of Buzz Aldrin recorded four years prior (The video has since been removed for copyright infringement).

“We do these kinds of evaluations and post them as profiles on our website, so somebody obviously has gone there and picked it up,” says Edwards, who has posted similar articles for other public figures.

The DailyStar’s assertion that Edward’s “technology is still top-secret” is verifiably false. Edwards proudly offers the “Nanovoice” program, which she used to analyze Aldrin’s account, for public download on her website. The unscientific application essentially gives a personality assessment based on one’s voice. Edwards described it as “bringing horoscope into modern validity.”

Aldrin continues to fight UFO claim

The bottom line is that Aldrin has repeatedly had to explain his comment about what he saw during the Apollo 11 launch. Despite his efforts to set the record straight, the lie is much more attractive than his truth. His Wikipedia entry attempts to correct what has been misreported for years. In an “ask me anything” session on the online discussion site Reddit three years ago, Aldrin explained what he did and didn’t see out the window on the mission to the moon.

Here are his words, apparently written by him: “On Apollo 11 in route [sic] to the Moon, I observed a light out the window that appeared to be moving alongside us. There were many explanations of what that could be, other than another spacecraft from another country or another world – it was either the rocket we had separated from, or the four panels that moved away when we extracted the lander from the rocket and we were nose to nose with the two spacecraft. So in the close vicinity, moving away, were four panels. And I feel absolutely convinced that we were looking at the sun reflected off of one of these panels. Which one? I don’t know. So technically, the definition could be ‘unidentified.’

“We well understood exactly what that was. And when we returned, we debriefed and explained exactly what we had observed. And I felt that this had been distributed to the outside world, the outside audience, and apparently it wasn’t, and so many years later, I had the time in an interview to disclose these observations, on another country’s television network. And the UFO people in the United States were very very angry with me, that i had not given them the information. It was not an alien.” To read the rest go to Reddit.

To know more about how misinformation and nonsense, and why “fake news” spreads so fast:

– Massachusetts Institute of Technology report “STUDY: FALSE NEWS SPREADS FASTER THAN THE TRUTH”
– A more digestible story on that MIT document from The Atlantic magazine
– The Oxford Internet Institute’s project on Computational Propaganda has looked at the velocity at which untruths spread

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