How UFO hunters are turning to the web

20th Feb 2010 | 10:00

How UFO hunters are turning to the web

The internet has brought the practice chaos and new life

UFO hunters on the internet

This is a world in which information and disinformation are fast becoming completely indistinguishable.

It's a world in which we can't hide: anyone can electronically reach out and communicate with almost anybody else. And as the internet consolidates its grip on humanity, it's forcing great change on even the most esoteric niches of society.

Take the practice of ufology. The internet has certainly brought it chaos, but it has also been a catalyst for new life and opportunities. It's now easier to be taken seriously if you have what you believe is an extra-terrestrial experience– and the very organisations you might try to contact in this case have also had to adapt to change brought about by the internet.

"I think that without the internet, we couldn't exist," says veteran ufologist Roy Lake of London UFO Studies. "I had a lady who phoned me this morning from Reading. She had a sighting last night and she wanted to know what it was. She found our website and obviously our phone number is on there and so she phoned straight away. And she was quite happy to get through to us and that we didn't dismiss her. We take it all quite seriously."

London ufo studies

THE UFO CENTRE:Ufology groups now use the web as a first point of contact for both the press and the public

As with most other fields of human endeavour, the internet is transforming the face of ufology in unexpected ways. "It's the internet that keeps us all going and alert," says Lake. "Some of the stuff that comes in you can say is a load of rubbish, but there's also a lot of good stuff. It reaches us and we really look into it. And without the internet, we might as well just pack it all in."

Gloria Heather Dixon is the Investigations Coordinator for BUFORA, the British UFO Research Association. Formed in 1962, it's probably the best-known of the UK's ufology groups. "One of the problems," she told PC Plus magazine, "and I say this with respect, is that there's such a lot of nonsense on the internet. I've never seen anything like it. Once people get onto the internet, they get my email address because I'm head of investigations and they come through to me."

Buofra

INVESTIGATING:BUFORA now has a sighting questionnaire to help them filter out false positives

Contact from a distance

The internet has certainly made it far easier for people to report what they believe may be UFOs, but has it increased the number of false sightings that come in to serious researchers?

"98 per cent of all sightings can be explained if they're reported soon enough," says Dixon. "One of the major reasons for misconception is that many people don't realise what's in the sky that can be seen and misidentified. We do get an awful lot of email both to our central office in London and to investigators. We have emails from across the world, from other UFO groups, from airports, even from universities. We get things from everywhere," she says emphatically.

"The only drawback with a PC is that you can't see the person who's sending you the information," adds Lake. "I always stress that you must contact me, or if you can come round that's even better. I don't criticise anybody, I don't dismiss anybody and I don't turn around and say you're talking a load of nonsense. It's not fair on the person anyway."

Knowing he's at a disadvantage, Lake is pragmatic when it comes to possible pranksters: "Obviously there are a lot of publicity seekers out there, but there are also the genuine ones. Like this lady this morning, she was over the moon. She said, 'I can't thank you enough. It's nice to talk to somebody without them laughing at me,' so it works both ways – and she found us by looking on the internet. It's very rewarding."

"We always deal with [publicity seekers] graciously," adds Dixon, "but there are exotic claims. Those in the 1990s were influenced by things like The X Files and all the things going on in the media, which influences people's beliefs radically."

UFO

THE WEB EFFECT:The web is making it easier for the public to investigate what they see in the skies

The location of those visiting UFO websites also reveals some intriguing information. "We get correspondence from all over the world and that's what this is all about: the information coming in from all over the world," says Lake. "If you look on our guestbook, you'll see a lot of people writing in from the United States, including the military. They're very interested in the abduction side of things, so I believe there's more to this than meets the eye."

UFOs = Chinese lanterns?

Wherever you are in the world, it's easy to mistake one thing for something else – and one craze has been to blame for many UFO sightings recently: "It's these blasted Chinese lanterns," says Lake. "They're becoming a blooming nuisance. A lot of people buy them, they're quite large. A company sent me one, we lit it and before we could get the camera going, it was gone! They're orange in colour, so people see that and go 'My God!'"

Chinese lanterns

SKY OF FIRE:Chinese sky lanterns create spectacular but eerie shows that spark flurries of UFO reports

Chinese sky lanterns are made from thin paper on a lightweight frame. Acting like toy hot air balloons and using a candle or similar luminous heat source, they can soar for miles and are regularly mistaken for UFOs by a general public primed by shows such as The X Files.

"One night, there were about 20 [sky lanterns] over London and the general public thought we were being invaded. So we have to accommodate that as well," says Lake.

BUFORA has developed a way of quickly finding out what they're dealing with and reassuring those reporting lantern sightings. "Our questionnaire is great because it has all the relevant questions, and I can then say 'OK we're looking at sky lanterns,'" says Dixon.

"But often, because people want to believe, it's a huge problem. So I have a standard letter that says 'Google Chinese sky lanterns UFOs' and it will bring up video footage, photographs, all kinds of nonsense written by the media, and you'll be able to see if that's similar to what you saw."

But while the internet makes it easier for people to report things they see in the night skies, it's had a detrimental effect on many ufology organisations.

The game changer

"Of course, the internet has changed everything for everyone," laments Dixon. "We used to publish a magazine and we were actually a limited company. But now, because of the time involved with that and with being a voluntary organisation, we dissolved the company, so we don't have members anymore."

No company membership means no funding through subscription payments. Change was inevitable once the internet got a grip on people's lives and altered the way the public expects others to serve up information.

"What happened was, we used to publish a very good magazine, and with the advent of the internet we decided that being on the web was a better way of doing all this stuff," says Dixon. "If you go to the British Library, you'll find Sky Link," says Lake.

"That was our magazine. It started off with about seven or eight pages, and finished up with God knows how many. I kept it up for quite a few years. Then the internet arrived and I went on there and found that there was so much stuff going on. There were a lot of groups that actually folded because the internet meant they couldn't afford to do it any more."

Stealth bomber

PLANE STUPID:Because sightings are reported faster, the internet makes it easier to spot unusual aircraft

The internet has also made it much easier for the media to contact ufologist organisations. Sensation-seeking publications increasingly look up people such as Dixon and Lake for comment on various things, and they don't always do it with the best of intentions.

"The Sun wanted my opinion on 2012," says Lake. "I haven't even seen the damned thing. It only came out last Friday! But they still wanted to know what I thought of it."

"People can so easily get a hold of us, and so can the media who, with great respect, are such a pain!" exclaims Dixon.

"TV and radio: most of it's a nightmare. And as I try to explain in the training course, when dealing with the press, you're a two-minute slot, you're in and out, and they're not interested. They want to sensationalise it and then they're onto the next thing. That's the way it works. On occasion, though, you get one like Radio 4, which I love."

Trained observers

The training course that Dixon mentions is a qualification in aerial identification for UFO researchers. The internet has even changed the way that BUFORA teaches this. "It's in six modules with an examination," she says, "and we have quite a few people on the course. It used to be that the training course was done by snail mail and I'd be writing and hand marking it. It's so much easier now."

Proper training is seemingly becoming increasingly necessary. Dixon warns against making up your mind about what you see in the night sky by naively looking online at a single website. It's important to verify what one page says against information on others.

"If I find something and I'm not too sure what it is," she told us, "I can Google it and have a look around and the information is there. It's not always accurate, mind you, especially on Wikipedia. I mean, you can edit it but then someone else can come along and edit it, so I don't think it works very well. Some of the things they've written about BUFORA!"

Which is, of course, further proof that the internet has both furthered and hindered the ufologists' cause.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 291

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