Minhaj Aman

Research-Lead, Dismislab
Misleading space claims spread on science platforms
This article is more than 1 year old

Misleading space claims spread on science platforms

Minhaj Aman

Research-Lead, Dismislab

There have been several instances of science enthusiasts’ platforms spreading false information about space. This article deals with four such examples of misleading posts published on Facebook groups or pages. And there are practical suggestions and tips on fact checking such claims.

Recently, a unique photo of the sun went viral on social media. The image shows a clear outline of the star’s bright golden exterior. Some posts claim that the image was captured by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The post was published multiple times in the “Space and Astronomy” group, which has nearly 1 million members, and has since been shared hundreds of times. An analysis of at least 37 groups posting the same images since 2020 found that at least 9 of them regularly provide scientific information and analysis.

The claim did not only spread in Bangladesh. According to AFP’s FactCheck report, this claim had spread in several countries including Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan. AFP FactCheck said the photo was taken by Astro-photographer Bray Falls, from Earth, and not by the Parker Solar Probe. When contacted by AFP, Falls confirmed that the photos were indeed taken by him. He jokingly tweeted a screenshot of the fake claim, saying, “I’m the Parker Solar Probe!”

The second claim is about the moon. On 12 May 2022, a photo was posted on a Facebook group called ‘General Knowledge‘ where it was said that this clear photo of the moon was taken by a NASA scientist. This group, with 10,000 members, posts various information on science, language and general knowledge. That post was also found in another Facebook group named ‘Space, Science and Technology’. According to Rumor Scanner’s factcheck, the photo was taken by a French astro-photographer Anthony Salci who is not a NASA scientist.

Similarly, in November 2021, a photo was posted on a science-enthusiasts’ Facebook group called Mohakash o Biggan (Space and Science), saying it was ‘Earth’s sunset from space…’. But a factcheck by USA Today found that the photo, which is claimed to be of a sunset, is actually a computer-generated image, taken from an old video. It is also said to be depicting a sunrise photo, not of a sunset.

Recently, another photo has been making the rounds on several science and space related Facebook groups. It claims that astronaut Bruce McCandless floated in space without any harness from a spacecraft and was the first person in history to do so. But reports from multiple fact-checking agencies suggest that the image was doctored, even though Bruce McCandless had indeed floated in space without any harness connecting him to a spacecraft. The original photo of McCandless was uploaded on NASA website in 2017. USA Today said the doctored photo was first uploaded on Flickr from an ID of one Tianxiao Zhang. The uploader told the newspaper that he had fused two images to produce the one he uploaded on Flickr. Despite being fact-checked, this post kept appearing on Facebook pages of science enthusiasts.

This is how misleading claims about science and space are being posted on Facebook groups or pages targeting science enthusiasts with hundreds of thousands of members. Most of such posts with misleading claims first appear in English, which are later translated into Bengali and posted on online platforms in Bangladesh. Group admins, in turn, allow publication of such posts without verification.

To avoid confusion

Hawking Chair of Cosmology and Science Communication at Canada’s Perimeter Institute, Dr. Katherine Mack spoke to US-based Science.org February 2022 about the spread of misleading information about space and its prevention. Explaining the dangers, she said, believing in these small bits of misinformation about space opens the path for a person to fall for major space related conspiracy theories.

She said, to avoid such confusion, one should first check who is attributed for the piece of information. Information without any such reference must be questioned and people should avoid sharing them. Besides, any information in the newsfeed can be initially verified by a Google search or similar means. She also said that most space scientists of the world regularly post their activities and observations on their websites or on Twitter, from which proper information can be found.

Dr. Mack believes, instead of mocking someone who is spreading misinformation, one should rather politely present them with the facts. That is likelier to bring about an effective solution.