The headlines sound thrilling. One might say they bait a click.
“ANONYMOUS SAYS NASA HAS EVIDENCE OF ALIEN LIFE. DOES IT?” — Newsweek
“The world's biggest hacking group thinks NASA is about to announce alien life.” — the Independent
Maybe you know of Anonymous as a band of socially enlightened hackers: liberators of knowledge from elites who want to hide it from the public. You certainly know what NASA is.
And what you get, if you follow the articles to the amateur YouTube channel that is their source, is video of a man in a Guy Fawkes mask — “Anonymous Global,” he calls himself — reading out old quotes from NASA spokespeople in a spooky, synthesized voice.
The man in the anarchist mask quotes a NASA science director's testimony from a congressional hearing in April, all totally public: “We are on the verge of making one of the most profound, unprecedented discoveries in history.”
That quote — taken out of context and adorned with Anonymous Global's wild conspiracy theorizing — became the basis for millions of views and countless news articles, forcing the science director in question and NASA officials to explicitly deny the claims of a shoddily produced YouTube video this week.
“There’s no pending announcement regarding extraterrestrial life,” a NASA spokesman wrote to The Washington Post, in case you were still in doubt.
Anonymous Gobal's video doesn't show Thomas Zurbuchen's actual testimony, in which the director talked up recent discoveries of planets around distant suns and organic chemicals on Saturn's moon but caveated that “we haven't found definitive signs of life just yet.”
Later in his 12-minute video, between monetized ads, Anonymous Global runs out of quotes and just sits there in front of random UFO footage, talking about an “alien protocol.”
“Well this was a whole lot of nothing,” says one commenter among the million-plus people who clicked.
Not to mention all the people who clicked on one of the many, many news headlines that played along with the YouTuber's bait and switch.
“Anonymous says NASA is ‘on the verge’ of announcing the existence of extraterrestrial life,” writes the Independent, citing “a YouTube account affiliated with the hacking group.”
In this instance, even the YouTuber calling himself “Anonymous Global” was more accurate than the news. “Anonymous is NOT a group or an organization,” he notes, correctly, in a disclaimer on his channel.
As the New Yorker once wrote, Anonymous is not an organization of hackers or anything else, but rather “a shape-shifting subculture” of anti-establishment Internet users.
It's an open-access brand, essentially, and anyone can claim allegiance to it.
In the case of “Anonymous Global,” his YouTube history reveals that he started making videos about the flight simulator X-Plane, until a year ago, when he fully embraced the Anonymous brand.
Preceding his viral aliens video from last week: “Anonymous 10 Greatest Conspiracy Theories” and “Anonymous Some Thoughts on Christmas 2016.”
But never mind.
“HUMANS are about to discover alien life, NASA believes — according to the latest video from hacktivist group Anonymous,” says the Sun.
And it's not just the British tabloids — which before breathlessly reporting on the Anonymous aliens video, were spotted lending credence to the “Breatharian” movement, made up of people who claim they don't need food.
Newsweek picked up the story, too, with that ALL-CAPS question headline: “ANONYMOUS SAYS NASA HAS EVIDENCE OF ALIEN LIFE. DOES IT?”
You have to read more than 200 words into the article to find out the answer: No, it does not.
Even Sputnik News, which is run by the Russian government and named after a satellite that symbolizes its space rivalry with NASA, flirted with the notion that U.S. government scientists might have beaten their Russian rivals to the biggest discovery in history.
Once you click through, though, the Russians quickly dispel such nonsense.
“Just about anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the dark Web can grab themselves a few minutes in the online limelight by ‘releasing’ an ‘announcement’ and crediting the story as being from Anonymous,” Sputnik writes.
“We all want the same outcome, certainly, but we'll stick with the peer-reviewed science, thanks.”
Or sometimes just calling the agency a YouTuber claims to speak for can help.
“While we’re excited about the latest findings from NASA’s Kepler space observatory, there’s no pending announcement regarding extraterrestrial life,” a spokesman for the agency wrote to The Post on Monday.
“For years NASA has expressed interest in searching for signs of life beyond Earth. We have a number of science missions that are moving forward with the goal of seeking signs of past and present life on Mars and ocean worlds in the outer solar system. While we do not yet have answers, we will continue to work to address the fundamental question, ‘Are we alone?’ ”
So there it is. For the moment, the only confirmed intelligent life in the universe is human — more intelligent some weeks than others.
This article has been updated with NASA's comments and the science director's rebuttal.