I don’t think I’ll ever call myself a “space geek” but I’ll admit that I got a bit excited when I heard about the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) and its plummet to earth. The story of the falling satellite was all over the news last week and the thought of seeing a giant ball of fire in the sky was intriguing.
I have a tendency to do a lot of my SBX work at night and last Friday was no exception. I decided that I’d follow the #UARS hashtag on Twitter to keep tabs on the space excitement. As the night progressed, it became more and more likely that Northern Alberta was going to get a pretty good show. The online models were showing the UARS making what could be a final pass right over the province.
Around 11:45PM, I headed outside with my phone and Flip cam in hand… hoping to catch a glimpse of something cool. I kept watching the hashtag on Twitter but it was about as quiet as the sky above me. Except for one Tweet that peaked my interest…
It was a simple and short Tweet from @AlanDangeRoss suggesting that there was some space junk coming down in southern Alberta. I’ve been around this social media thing for a while now and have trained my brain to attach a certain level of suspicion to everything I read. The guy said pictures were coming… those would probably help solidify his claim. I decided to follow his account in hopes of seeing some images of some steaming ball of metal.
Not surprising, others saw this Tweet and started retweeting it. Within minutes it has spread to thousands of people… who spread it to thousands more. The (mis)information was soon picked up by @SpaceTrails… an account that had been providing some pretty solid information that night. This acknowledgement from a more established account was enough to get the rumor really flying.
We were off to the races. Okotoks starting trending on Twitter. The town was making a regular appearance in the #UARS stream. The social media world turned its attention to southern Alberta… all because some guy Tweeted that he’d seen some flaming space junk.
The naysayers tried to chime in and ask for more evidence… but they were overtaken by the thousands of people that wanted to spread the word about Okotoks. Media outlets picked up on the news and some even included it in their preliminary stories about the end of the doomed satellite. There wasn’t any more evidence coming out of Okotoks (no pictures, videos or even additional Tweets from the area) but it didn’t matter. The satellite had crashed in Okotoks and the sight was “amazing”.
Others picked up on the hype and tried to add their piece of history. Fake videos claiming to be of the broken up satellite began to emerge. This was the one that seemed to get the most attention…
It became more evident that the Okotoks story was completely fake… although the online chatter was pretty entertaining. @imnotgonnalie2u (later identified as Sebastian Salazar from Calgary) provided some great “on the scene” coverage… sharing the story of reporter Carl Phillips as he surveyed the damage in Okotoks. Orson Welles fans quickly realized that Salazar was re-enacting a modern day version of the classic “War of the Worlds” using Okotoks as a setting. Most Twitter’ers didn’t catch on and took the Tweets as early news coverage of the downed satellite. Information from these Tweets made its way into stories from trusted news sites.
Legitimate information slowly started to trickle out by morning. NASA reported that there wasn’t any information supporting space debris in the Okotoks region and most news outlets now had the time to properly create accurate stories. Okotoks faded back into global anonymity.
It was amazing to watch this whole thing unfold. It really demonstrated the power of social media and how information can spread quickly online. There are lots of lessons to be learned. Check back tomorrow and I’ll share them with you…