It sure looked strange hanging there in the sky over northern New Jersey, a long, thin, oval-shaped aircraft with a bright blue light emanating from its base. Across a 20-mile stretch of the state, traffic snarled as motorists slowed down or stopped their cars to get a better look. Some people took out their phones to capture what they saw as the sun set on Sept. 14 last year, and soon a half dozen or so of those videos began circulating around Facebook.
One was shared by DJ Ashba, the heavily tattooed former Guns N’ Roses guitarist, from his home across the country in Las Vegas. When it comes to considering interstellar life, he is among the truest of believers. “Aliens do exist,” says Ashba, who has staged an ET-themed set mixing rock and electronic dance music for the past four years. “Whether we want to believe or not—they are out there.” His Facebook post containing the clip was reshared 6,500 times, receiving 1,400 comments and 3,900 of the reaction emojis that Facebook would’ve used as a signal to prioritize Ashba’s post in his followers’ News Feeds. (At current count, he has more than 300,000 followers.)
The Jersey UFO would go on to reach mass virality on Facebook. From Sept. 14 to Sept. 16, the videos and posts related to the sighting received more than 50 millions views on the site, according to an internal Facebook report about the UFO content and data from Crowd Tangle, a Facebook-owned tool that tracks popular links on the app. A large portion of those views went to a single post by UFO Sightings Daily, an alien-enthusiast “news” website. It amassed over 40 million views and was the most read story on Facebook on Sept. 15. And despite contending with obviously false information, it took Facebook almost two days to contain the UFO hoax and begin to shut it off. (For the Mulders out there: The company would internally conclude that the craft was actually a blimp, perhaps one flying over MetLife Stadium to film the Giants-Steelers matchup on Monday Night Football.)
Aliens may be a matter mostly for matinees, and Facebook certainly faces graver threats from other forms of misinformation, especially the kind that might lead to ethnic violence or election interference in the developing parts of this world. But looking at how easily the Jersey UFO spread through Facebook makes something plainly obvious about the site, and the ramifications speak to the more serious concerns weighing on the social network: If the company cannot quickly and effectively stop conversation about a UFO appearing outside Manhattan, how can the internal systems it has established hope to handle misinformation that isn’t as blatantly untrue?
Even if Facebook might argue that UFO misinformation doesn’t pose enough of a societal harm to pursue, it illustrates another point about the social network—one that may hit home sooner for Facebook. Facebook is completely awash in low quality content. (In Facebook’s most recent quarterly report about the most popular content on its site, it identified a meme website that masquerades as a webpage for former Green Bay Packers players and an online hemp store as the two most popular links on Facebook.) Facebook relies on advertising dollars to bring in over $30 billion in annual profit. Those advertisers presumably do not want to see their ads appear alongside dumb memes about your favorite cookie or hemp. Or UFOs.
“The thing about the UFO—it seems like a perfect storm,” says Katie Harbath. She spent 10 years at Facebook as a director of public policy fighting misinformation and has since started a consultancy, Anchor Change, to consider best practices for big tech. “It’s a type of story that a lot of people will click on. And there’s also the difficulty that the platform has with real-time events.” Facebook, she says, struggles “to do any sort of quick turnaround” because of “the volume of everything that they have to go through.”
Recently, Facebook, which couldn’t be reached to comment for this story, has struggled to contain new wild theories like Qanon, clearly underestimating at first how many people would fall under the political cult’s spell. It has no excuse when it comes to restraining talk about Little Green Men, a decidedly time-honored pastime. Indeed, the first modern instance of misinformation spread was probably Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization of War of the Worlds, famously the spark of a nationwide panic. (Those fictional invaders landed in New Jersey, too—a little further south, near Princeton.) Decades on, Facebook has proven a consistent home for interstellar speculation. In 2019, for instance, a Facebook group called “Storm Area 51 They Can’t Stop Us” attracted nearly 200,000 members. (Its tagline: “We attack at dawn!”) A Facebook invite to the proposed assault got 2 million RSVPs. On Sept. 20 that year, several dozen people turned up outside the Nevada military base to carry through with the mission, eventually turned away by the guards stationed there. The Facebook group remains publicly viewable on the site.
A year later, in 2020, the UFO—or the blimp, depending on what you believe—appeared over New Jersey. As best can be told from Crowd Tangle data, the first Facebook post about it came at 8:16 p.m. on Sept. 14 shortly after the Giants game kicked off. It appeared on a Facebook group celebrating Italian-Americans. (Its caption continued an enduring meme from last year that imagined what else could happen in topsy-turvy 2020: “Who had bets on aliens in September?”) The post got 38 comments and 55 reaction emojis, making it more likely to show up on the group members’ Facebook feeds. “Who knows what it is but it definitely does look suspicious LOL,” one member wrote in a comment.
The post from UFO Sightings Daily that really captured attention began circulating the next morning around 8 a.m. By 10, it had been flagged internally as potential misinformation, but the moderation team within Facebook ignored it, likely burdened by reviewing content seen as more pressing—possibly related to Covid-19 but more likely material related to the U.S. presidential election that was seven weeks away.
The post stayed up on Facebook, attracting millions of views. In the evening around 8, Facebook shifted responsibility for reviewing the post to its third-party fact checkers. The company relies on organizations like Poltifact to assess the veracity of content on its site. (It’s not clear which organization fact-checked the UFO Sightings Daily story.) Facebook remains reluctant to make such a call itself, and it hesitates to take its strongest action against misinformation until those outside checkers complete their review. At this point, the UFO Sightings Daily post was being read at a rate of 3 million views per quarter-hour.
It would take nearly another day for the verdict to come in. It finally did at 3:53 p.m. on Sept. 16, Facebook’s internal system finally marking the post as fact-checked. The checkers had made their official decision. Aliens had not in fact landed in the Garden State. This set off a chain of events where Facebook applies a warning label over false content and deprioritizes it, dropping it to the bottom of users’ feeds. By 4:30, the UFO Sightings Daily post had almost entirely stopped circulating on Facebook.
Shutting off UFO Sightings Daily significantly slowed the New Jersey videos’ spread. But they weren’t completely halted, raising an important point: It’s hard for a social media company to fully remove some strain of misinformation even if it does try to police it. By the time Facebook acted against the UFO, those videos had long since flowed over to YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and other sites. (Those three ranked among the 10 most popular domains shared on Facebook in the third quarter; YouTube was No. 1.) The clips could then be reshared to Facebook, allowing the cycle to continue, albeit in a reduced state.
People like 23-year-old MarkAnthony Luckey Garcia helped feed the loop. Traveling home to Fort Lee, New Jersey, he had steered his Jeep over to the side of Route 46 to film the vessel. He posted to Twitter and Facebook-owned Instagram, then other Facebook users and at least one news organization—NJ.com, the skeletal remains of the state’s paper of record—shared his clip on Facebook. (Just the NJ.com story with Luckey Garcia’s video attracted nearly 500 comments and over 1,000 reaction emojis.) Witnessing the UFO was “a moment where I had to show other people what I saw because they might not believe,” he says. “I wanted to share it, so they could see that it was a real thing.”
Whether Mr. Spock is real or not, Crowd Tangle data confirms this much: As midnight dawned on Sept. 17, posts about the Jersey UFO continued to fly around Facebook, more than two days after the unidentified craft first appeared.
The internal Facebook report about the New Jersey UFO comes from the documents that Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen turned over to the SEC; redacted versions have gone to Congress and a consortium of news organizations, including Forbes. They’re popularly known as The Facebook Papers.