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The Phantom Drone Scare:
Mass Hysteria Can Be Ruled Out

Since mid-December, there have been hundreds of reports of drones with unusually long wingspans flying in remote parts of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, often in formation with other drones. The sightings have created such concern that the FBI has launched a Drone Task Force and is working with more than a dozen state and federal agencies. The flurry of mysterious drones criss-crossing the skies over the Midwest has attracted international media interest and spawned numerous conspiracy theories. It’s the military. It’s the CIA. It’s a retired aviation expert with too much time on his hands. And of course, no explanation would be complete without the usual suspects: the Russians, the Chinese, Arab terrorists, and space aliens. But authorities are increasing looking to a surprising explanation: hysteria.

As an expert on this topic, I can categorically conclude that whatever the trigger for these sightings is, it is not mass hysteria. Commonly referred to in scientific circles as mass psychogenic illness, this term refers to the rapid spread of illness symptoms within what is typically a close-knit group. I am unaware of a single report involving people seeing drones and suddenly feeling unwell. Given the lack of concrete evidence for drones and the identification of several objects that were clearly not drones, there is a much more likely explanation: what sociologists refer to as a collective delusion. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the term because of the word “delusion”, which is commonly used by psychiatrists and psychologists to describe people who are experiencing psychosis and having trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality. They may exhibit visual or audio hallucinations or create complex stories that have little basis in fact. However, when sociologists use the term collective delusion, they are usually referring to incidents involving the spontaneous spread of false beliefs within a given population.

If this was a horse race, based on the evidence compiled thus far, Social Delusion would be the clear early favorite. There are many examples of collective delusions in recent history. One famous episode occurred in Ireland during the mid-1980s, when groups of people began flocking to religious grottoes following reports that statues were moving. The episode began on February 14, 1985, when several schoolchildren thought they had witnessed a miracle. One of the witnesses, 7-year-old Elizabeth Flynn, said: “I saw Jesus moving. His hand moved and he called me.” Other pupils said they could not only see the beckoning hand, but the eyes were moving as well. This dramatic incident received sensational media coverage and soon people began flocking to the church to confirm or deny the “miracle”. Before long thousands of people were reporting that they too could see … the statues moving. Many assumed it was a sign from god. Over the next several months, thousands of people began visiting churches across the region and staring at the statues with the expectation that they might “give them a sign.” Newspapers and media outlets could not keep up with the deluge of reported miracles that were claimed to have occurred in at least 40 separate locations. Psychologist Jurek Kirakowski of Cork University concluded that the sightings were the result of optical illusions prompted by intense staring at the statues, particularly at dusk.1

Scientists collect facts and form hypotheses. Sometimes they cannot state a claim with absolute certainty. The case of the mystery drones is one such instance. While we wait for more information to emerge, or a physical object to examine, what we can say based on a perusal of the facts is that a social delusion is the most likely explanation. Could someone or a group be experimenting with drones in the rural countryside of the Midwest? Certainly, but most of these sightings appear to be the result of misidentifications or other mundane explanations. Investigations by everyone from the Colorado Department of Public Safety to the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI have failed to turn up any concrete evidence of anything out of the ordinary. In mid-January, the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) issued a press release on the status of their investigation. They reported that from November 23 to January 13, they received 90 reports of mysterious drones. Not a single instance of illegal drone activity was confirmed, and of the 14 cases involving hobbyists, none of the drones had large wingspans or were flying in clustered formation as had been reported. Of the 23 more recent reports, six were determined to have been prompted by atmospheric conditions or commercial aircraft, while 13 were identified as “planets, stars or small hobbyist drones not meeting the description of large wingspan drones traveling in groups.” Only four of the reports fell into the category of “unable to identify.”2

Instead of dismissing ongoing public anxiety of the sightings, the CDPS has stated that while they are unaware that any crime has been committed or anything out of the ordinary is going on, they will continue to monitor the situation. This was a wise move because instead of dismissing the reports entirely or ridiculing witnesses, by openly sharing their investigation results with the public, and showing a willingness to look at any new cases as they arise, and maintaining an open dialogue with the public, they have likely tamped down the growth of rumors and conspiracy theories which continue to swirl around this topic.

In assessing this case, it is important to remember that nature of eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. This could be a case of history repeating itself. From the late 1940s to the early 60s, the United States experienced numerous flying saucer sighting waves. In the early years, their appearance coincided with the advent of the Cold War, resulting in the popular belief that they were a secret foreign device, most likely Russian. Few people thought they were space aliens.3 More recent UFO sighting clusters have tended to be interpreted in a more benevolent manner, as “saviours from the skies” or what Carl Jung termed as “technological angels.”4 Many of the early “space brother” reports of the 1950s involved human-like beings assuring earthlings that they were here to protect us from the ravages of the Atomic Age (also the theme of the 1951 science fiction classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still). For many believers, it was a reassuring message. The sky has always served as a Rorschach ink blot test of the collective unconscious, reflecting popular hopes and fears.

Hundreds of years ago, lonely sailors peered out to sea and saw voluptuous mermaids beckoning to them from distant shorelines. During the 19th century, sea serpent sightings were common, as were fairy reports. One could argue that these phenomena have never left us, and that they keep reappearing in a different form, colored by culture and the times. Is it possible that flying saucers and UFOs have morphed into something more plausible — and current — the fear of foreigners and new technologies. Several people have posted online that the drones may be Iranian terrorists plotting future attacks. And while we need to take these threats seriously, any assessment of the threat needs to be based on evidence, and right now, there is none.

I have studied the history of outbreaks of UFO sightings over the US since the 1890s and there is a familiar pattern. First is the historical backdrop. We are living in a period of significant geo-political tension combined with the relatively recent advent of high functioning drones. Add to this mix the unprecedented level of government distrust and the fallible nature of human perception, and you have a recipe for a phantom drone scare as people scrutinize the skies either confirm or deny the rumors. In doing so, they are prone to redefining ambiguous, almost exclusively nocturnal aerial stimuli as the product of sinister forces. If true, it would not be the first time this has happened — and it certainly won’t be the last. END

About the Author

Robert Bartholomew is a medical sociologist and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He is the author of American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants (Prometheus 2018) and the forthcoming book, Havana Syndrome (Springer Scientific, 2020) with UCLA Neurologist Robert W. Baloh, unmasking the pseudoscience surrounding claims that American diplomats in Cuba were attacked by a sonic weapon. Robert has a special interest in mass hysteria and social panics.

  1. Toibin, Colin. 1985. Moving Statues in Ireland: Seeing is Believing. County Laois: Erie: Pilgrim Press.
  2. Colorado Department of Public Safety. Updates on Investigations into Suspicious Drone Activity in NE Colorado. Press release, January 13, 2020.
  3. Gallup, George. 1947. Nine out of Ten Heard of Flying Saucers. Princeton, NJ: Public Opinion News Service, August 15.
  4. Jung, Carl. 1959. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. New York: Harcourt Brace.

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