Words by Simon Edwards, Online Comment Editor
If you’ve ever read the news online (a safe bet if you’re reading this), there’s a good chance you’ve read about our impending fiery demise, at least once or twice daily. There’s always a good deluge of existentially-provoking articles with provocative headlines like “Giant Asteroid Will Pass Dangerously Close To Earth”, “Deep Impact Imminent!”, or “Call Your Loved Ones Quick, The Dinokiller Is Back!”.
There’s big business in reporting on seemingly-imminent apocalyptic tragedy; futurism.com counted that in September-October 2019, “87 [Daily] Express articles about killer asteroids – which works out to an average of nearly three doomsday space posts a day”. While three apocalypses a day are a lot to be getting on with, and you’d think that they’d run dry eventually, the continued prevalence of these articles online is very telling – across tabloid sites and social media like Twitter’s trending articles, asteroids get plenty of airtime (here all week).
These articles are, in essence, clickbait in their purest form – in a 2016 article, Snopes reported a study by Columbia University concluding that 60% of articles shared on social media are never read, only consumed via headlines. While this phenomenon is increasingly familiar through the continued political quagmire of fake news, Snopes’ report drew on a fake imminent asteroid collision article used as part of the study to corroborate the claim.
These articles also have historical antecedents: in 1835, a New York newspaper called The Sun (not that one) published a series of articles that came to be known as The Great Moon Hoax, supposedly by a famous astrologer, detailing his insights about the Moon, its man-bat inhabitants, and other tall tales. The stories were widely read and, even after the hoax was revealed, popular, boosting the popularity of The Sun and giving everyone a good laugh. It was a simpler time.
Today, however, these articles are no laughing matter. Futurism.com notes that “claiming that a world-ending impact is impending crosses all sorts of ethical boundaries”, essentially stimulating primal fears of the unknown and the uncontrollable to generate ad revenue. These articles all drastically misinterpret, misrepresent and stretch the applicability of scientist quotes to generate a terrifying headline, slap a stock photo of a giant rock hurtling towards us on it, and let the panic money roll in.
This style of reporting on asteroids is multifaceted in its crass disregard for its readership – it draws upon a general ignorance of how space works, overlooking NASA’s statement that “no large object is likely to strike the Earth any time in the next several hundred years”, that the atmosphere protects us from most space debris, and other comforting aspects of our relationship with the great beyond. It provokes the anxious among us, already living fraught, stressful lives with sensationalist fears that stimulate the irrational side of our brains, causing significant mental anguish – speaking personally, sometimes asteroid clickbait scares me enough that it takes a day or so to get over it fully.
In short, asteroid clickbait contributes to many things: a culture of fear, an ignorance of science and rationality, distrust of scientists, and rendering internet news-sites and social media near unusable for the nervous amongst us in case we accidentally send ourselves into a spiral. I live in hope that we return to the days of the Great Moon Hoax, when fake stories about space were supposed to make us laugh in wonder, not cringe away from the sky.
Note: I have deliberately chosen an unrelated, non-threatening image for this article.