In 1990, the International Academy of Astronautics published a special issue of their journal , Acta Astronautica, dedicated to the problem of what to do in the event that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) detected an alien signal. These "post-detection protocols" as outlined in the IAA's Declaration of Principles in 1989 were inspired by increasingly rapid technological advances in the SETI field that made the likelihood of detecting a signal more likely than at any other point in the search's 30 year history.
But the one technological development that its collaborators couldn't have anticipated was the rise of social media, which could seriously complicate the ability of government and private research institutions to control the social consequences resulting from the detection of an extraterrestrial message.
"The IAA declaration of principles was based on using traditional forms of media, print, radio, TV, " Les Tennen, a space lawyer from Phoenix and member of the IAA's SETI Committee, told me. "Now we've got instantaneous communication where your phone will notify you of something important is happening, you don't even have to go looking for it. Millions, if not billions of people could be informed [of a potential ET signal] almost instantaneously."
As detailed in the text of the original 1990 post-detection protocol, in the aftermath of the detection of a possible alien signal, the institution or individual responsible for the discovery should seek to verify that the signal is indeed artificial and extraterrestrial in origin before making any sort of public announcement. Moreover, before informing the public about the signal, the institution that discovered the signal should first inform other relevant institutions and government actors about the signal so that its veracity can be independently verified.
If it turns out that the signal is indeed from aliens, the discovery can be made public via the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (a news service run by the International Astronomical Union) and the discoverer should inform the Secretary General of the United Nations. Indeed, the legal strength of the post-detection protocol rests on the authority of Article XI of the UN Treaty on governing the exploration and use of outer space, which requires that countries "inform the secretary general of the United Nations as well as the public and the international scientific community…of the nature, conduct, locations and results" of the results of space science.
Ultimately, these protocols were designed as a sort of damage control, both to limit the spread of false positives as well as public hysteria. As detailed in the report from a workshop conducted by NASA following the launch of the High Resolution Microwave Survey in 1993 (the most powerful SETI search ever conducted at that point), "reactions to a detection can range from indifference…through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale paranoia…a few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent."
NASA identified education as the most prominent factor in limiting the negative impacts of detecting an alien signal. In the days before the World Wide Web had risen to prominence, and long before the advent of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, limiting false information (which could trigger public panic) was far simpler. All news would be channeled through a handful of official agencies, and only after rigorous peer review and analysis.
Yet in the age of social media, rampant fake news, and Wikileaks, it's hard to imagine that news as big as the detection of the first message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be kept under wraps for long.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only could it spark public hysteria, but it could also lead toward government infighting like seen in Arrival or attempts to send a reply to aliens without a global consensus on what to say, or whether a message should be sent at all. The IAA post-detection protocol prohibits sending a response to ET without global consensus on the content of the message, and for that matter, SETI scientists are fiercely divided on whether sending a message to aliens is a smart move.
For now, Tennen is focused on developing ideas that would update the IAA post-detection protocol for our connected world. Some of his suggestions include updating the declaration so that it enables a strict confidentiality among researchers involved in verifying that a received signal is extraterrestrial in origin, as well as establishing a central organization that would be responsible for managing all communications to the public related to the detection of a signal.
Interestingly, some form of these protocols were included in the original 1989 Declaration of Principles, but were omitted from the 2010 revision. For example, the 1989 declaration said that the world should be informed of the signal through the International Astronaomical Union's Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams. On the other hand, the 2010 revision also established a Post-Detection Task Group under the IAA SETI committee, which would be responsible for dealing with "matters that may arise in the event of a confirmed signal."
At last year's International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Tennnen gave a presentation on the problems social media poses to the post-detection protocol and some of his proposed solutions. Tennen said he got a positive response from the members of the IAA SETI committee in the audience, who agreed that it was time to start seriously considering how to update the post-detection protocols.
"The danger if this isn't updated is [in the event of a signal detection] the declaration will be disregarded because it will be obsolete," said Tennen. "There is not going to be time to have the kind of discussions and deliberations that the original protocols were envisioning."
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