Bad internet

"Mars, fascinating:" Why a garbage video went viral before NASA could release the real one

A rotten ecosystem of science social media accounts is pushing hoax content to gin up audience numbers and sell low-rent affiliate ads. The Mars rover is the latest victim.

A panoramic view of Mars, complete with otherworldly sound, was all over Twitter and Instagram hours after Perseverance landed on the red planet. It was unbelievable!

And it actually was unbelievable. The images were of Mars, but it wasn’t from Perseverance. It was from Curiosity, which has been on the Red Planet since 2012. And it wasn’t so much a video as it was a digital quilt of still images used to make a stunning 360-degree "video" that gained traction on the social web, and fooled people left and right.

The fake video came replete with a spellbinding audio track of Martian winds — also fake. (NASA released actual, legit sound from Mars on Monday, thanks to a microphone on Perseverance rover.)

Jason Major, a science communicator who runs the solar-system-focused website Lights in the Dark, speculated the spooky audio might have come from the Mars Insight lander, which has been on Mars since November 2018. It's sound from Mars, to be sure — but it wasn't from a rover microphone. Instead, it's from seismometer data on Insight transposed into audio, Major said.

Why would someone fake a Mars video?

The hoax video has all the hallmarks of a problem that has always been with us, but has especially accelerated in recent years: misinformation. Sometimes, with something like a Mars video, the effect is relatively small. But other scientific misinformation, bleeding into active disinformation, has life-threatening consequences. All you have to do is turn to the bevy of Covid-19 misinformation to see what a dangerous weapon it can be.

Social media companies have had trouble staying on top of it, with some campaigns purporting to fight false information being called an “outright sham” by critics.

But what are the motivations behind this Mars video, and why is it part of a bigger problem?

On Monday, a bonafide video from the surface of Mars was released, showing the descent of the Perseverance lander from three different cameras.

It marked the first true video taken from Mars. While other NASA “videos” exist, like this Curiosity video created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these were stitched together from a series of still photos, sometimes panoramas, to give the sense of movement. But the new video is real live footage, originally recorded as a video. In fact, a widely shared image of the rover’s descent was a still from the video, which had yet to be fully processed by NASA.

The Perseverance rover also has a microphone aboard, meaning that it’s capable of capturing sounds on Mars. Two snippets were released on Monday, in which the wind on Mars is audible.

There’s a lot of value and excitement around new media from the Red Planet. Tellingly, it all went wrong on social media, where shares and likes can supersede facts and create a lucrative business — via organic audience growth — for those who peddle more in clicks than in accuracy.

"Letting you know something is wrong/fake/misleading/misrepresented is partly about being as open and honest with you as I can about what science is really telling us, and partly about not letting cynical people lie to you about your world (or other worlds!) for money or clicks," cosmologist Katie Mack posted on her Twitter account about the proliferation of fake Mars videos that starting going viral last week.Post-Wook for Inverse

“It's this weird ‘taking the wind out of your sails’ feeling when you're really anticipating something amazing happening and a cheap ripoff is passed around as though it's the real thing,” Katie Mack, an astrophysicist at North Carolina State University, tells Inverse.

“It’s like a bootleg from inside a movie theater of a film you really want to see. It sort of spoils the whole thing somehow.”

As for the motivation, Jevin West, an information scientist at the University of Washington who studies online misinformation, tells Inverse that these can often be simply ploys for attention.

"There’s a lot of people that take advantage of these situations where there’s a vacuum of information and an appetite for that information — in this case a video of Mars," West says.

“Mars, fascinating.”

Mack took to Twitter upon seeing the videos, trying to stymie some of the flood of misinformation going around.

They were among the many who shared the garbage video. You can see it for yourself below. One apparent source of the original fake came from the Twitter account @YourAnonOne, one of the numerous accounts claiming to be from the hacker collective.

This is fake.

As some replies pointed out, the name “Curiosity” can even be seen in the video. The fake video was shared with a simple caption, “Mars, fascinating.” (I know.) It was timed to the first release of images on Friday. Upon writing, it had more than 25.6 million views, was retweeted more than 41,300 times, and had more than 8,300 quote tweets.

In other words, it spread like wildfire. The author of one widely shared tweet even issued an apology upon seeing that the video was a hoax.

But that didn’t stop potentially millions of people believing it was the real deal, undercutting public trust in science.

West says it's unfortunately common in situations like this.

“Anytime there’s some uncertainty, whether it’s a crisis event or a noncrisis event … sometimes people spread things that they think are true,” he says.

But doing that can undermine the work scientists are doing.

“I think that it saturates people's understanding and attention on these issues and makes it harder for people to know that what they see is actually legit, especially when people who they trust are sharing things that are not real,” Mack says.

It also means that when the actual information is released, it can be a letdown compared to the hoax.

Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has worked on instruments for both Curiosity and Perseverance, tells Inverse she worries about the enthusiasm-drain hoaxes create for the real thing.

When it comes to space exploration — which falls under the budget ax frequently — enthusiasm from the public is vital. It's partially why Elon Musk sent a car to space — to get people excited.

“What our mission teams really do is just amazing, and we don't need to embellish it in any way for it to be thrilling for the public,” Lanza says.

“I worry that when folks realize that a fake story isn't real, that it will take away from their enthusiasm about the real work, and that it might make them less eager to learn about space and planetary science research in the future.”

Why was the fake Mars video posted?

Even when some people responded to the @YourAnonOne account and called the video a hoax, the account ultimately responded simply with “This is Mars,” and a link to a Houston Chronicle article on the Curiosity rover, seeming to indicate they were aware that it wasn’t from Perseverance. That left it up to viewers to make the inference — which given the context, isn’t entirely what happened.

Let's go down the rabbit hole — Some accounts which post content similar to this one may be trying to actively spread misinformation, or its more nefarious cousin, disinformation. Others may be doing it for the clicks.

We’ve all seen something like it. Astronomer Grant Tremblay recently pointed out an image which an account called “Insta Science” posted. It was an entirely doctored image. @insta_science has more than 13,000 followers.

Accounts like @SciencePorn have been suspended over similar issues — inaccurate information, content scraping, out-of-context “facts” — but others flourish. For instance, @crazysciencee, composed almost exclusively of inaccurate information, has amassed nearly 130,000 followers since the account was created last November.

The faux Mars video, for its part, may have originated on an account called “Science Club,” which has a jumble of numbers and letters as a handle and an image of a flat Earth as its avatar. It has 40,600 or so followers, and also posted the video on February 17, a day before Perseverance landed, to nearly 41,000 retweets, 10,300 or more quote tweets, and close to 150,000 likes as of the time of writing. (We aren't linking here.)

It’s the pinned tweet on their account. Its date stamp of February 17, 2021 at 9:34 p.m. is 34 hours earlier than the @YourAnonOne posted, which went up at 7:47 a.m. on February 19, 2021.

Notably, Perseverance didn’t land until February 18, and NASA didn’t share the first images until the same day as @YourAnonOne — meaning while neither account used the word “Perseverance,” @YourAnonOne was more timed to the news cycle to give the appearance of having come from Perseverance.

There were other high-volume tweeters of the same video: One called “Earth Pics” had 956 retweets and 337 quote tweets. An account called “Physics-astronomy” posted it to 193 retweets and 23 quote tweets — a smaller number, but each of those denoting a potential place for misinformation to spread. Physics-astronomy used the same caption as Science Club.

@Zone_astronomy reposted it as well, to only 7 quote tweets and 68 retweets… but notably also retweeted tweets from Science Club. Both accounts frequently link back to ScienceNatures.com, a site that lists its own Twitter account as @PhysicsAndAstr1 in its banner.

That account links to the domain http://www.thesciearth.com, a clone of ScienceNatures. Despite the handle @PhysicsAndAstr1, the Twitter account posts mostly images of animals. While most domain registry information is unavailable on the ICANN Lookup tool, both are registered in the same city — Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

A Blogger profile for the author reveals a series of other blogs — ScienceAlert.us, which imitates the (legitimate) website ScienceAlert.com; ScienceNewsHome, which uses the same design scheme as ScienceNatures and TheSciEarth; a blog called news-today99 that has an article about the Moon being an alien observatory in its top slot; and a blog whose only entry is about the arrest of Pakistani politician Fazal-ur-Rehman's brother for corruption. The domain registration for ScienceAlert.us uses a different domain registrar that didn't mask the name of the registrant, unlike the other two domains, which used GoDaddy. The name of the person who registered the domain: Atiq Ahmed, who lists his business name as Physicsastronomy to an address in Rawalpindi.

These two domains use the same design scheme and appear to be related to one another.

@wonderofscienc, who imitate the account @wonderofscience, posted the video… while the “real” @wonderofscience posted a similar video around two weeks prior, but with full attribution — that the footage was from Curiosity and the sound from Insight. The imitator @wonderofscienc got less engagement than the well-attributed video from @wonderofscience, but it is also engaging in a strange form of identity theft, and one that is paying off a little — the fake Wonder of Science has more than 10,000 followers, which is only 1 percent or so the number of the real Wonder of Science (which, while often simply displaying images with a brief explanation, also source images and videos and occasionally provide link-backs.)

So, many of the accounts are on less than the up-and-up.

Often, Mack says, they’re accounts that have scraped images from Reddit and other sites, often removing attribution, and at times stitching together things that shouldn’t be there — adding lightning to a cloud formation over the Moon, or showing a misrepresented image of an eclipse. The accounts all chase one thing: virality.

“One of these Twitter accounts will take an image and put a caption like ‘lunar eclipse from Mount Everest’ or something like that and is not that's not what it is, but they know that adding that caption to that image will get the thing spread around a lot and so they put these things out there,” Mack tells Inverse.

Often, she says, these accounts will also have something like 80 percent tweets and 20 percent affiliate-type ads. This can make it quite lucrative to trade in misleading information. “That's a whole cottage industry,” she says. Of course, she's right. There's a variety of courses on it. Here's one.

This can trickle down into arenas where it shouldn't. West says that by undermining whether a NASA video is real or not, it fuels conspiracy theorists and others to not place trust in the real agency.

“Certainly this one on Mars would fuel the conspiracy of ‘see, NASA’s fooling us again,’” he says, referring to people who also believe the Moon landing didn't happen.

What can be done about misinformation?

In a tweet, Mack called debunking things like this Mars video, “the least fun, most frustrating, most soul-destroying kind of science communication to do.”

West says public awareness is one of the big weapons that can be used to fight off misinformation.

“Most people who live in human society certainly know that you’re going to see misinformation and rumors conspiracy theories whether you have the internet or don’t have the internet.”

“It’s happened throughout time. But now with this powerful technology we have with social media, things can get amplified so fast, and right now all of us are susceptible to this strategic manipulation too.”

Give people the debunking tools they need

Mack says one possible avenue is to instill in people the practice of vetting information.

“We need to develop a practice of verification of information that's found on the internet,” she says. “That needs to be a norm. Like we need to say, ‘I saw this somewhere here's where it came from here's how I know it's legitimate.’”

These sentiments are echoed by West, who suggests we help give people the debunking tools they need on information — the right fact-checking organizations, the right ways to see if an account is legitimate or not, and other ways to corroborate information.

If this doesn't happen — as seen with claims of “fake news” — no one will know quite where to place their trust.

“My students will say ‘I don’t believe anything I see’ and to me, that’s what’s at stake here,” West says.

UPDATE: This piece was updated on February 23 to reflect the name of the person who registered ScienceAlert.us.

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