'Mystery drone' faithful undeterred by lack of evidence

Expert says “social panic”, “collective delusion” could explain drone sightings.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety says it is scaling back its investigation into reports of unexplained drone sightings after finding zero evidence that groups of large unmanned aircraft are flying strange patterns in the night sky.

“To date, CDPS has confirmed no incidents involving criminal activity, nor have investigations substantiated reports of suspicious or illegal drone activity,” the agency said Monday in a statement.

Reports of drone fleets crisscrossing northeast Colorado and southwest Nebraska at night began in mid-December, captivating the public and prompting local officals to form a drone task force. Federal authorities including the FBI and FAA joined in. Multiple private companies and military agencies denied the drones were theirs. Colorado officials turned their high-tech wildfire surveillance aircraft and a Colorado State Patrol plane into drone hunters, but every search has apparently come up empty.

“Based on the data gathered and analyzed during these investigations, CDPS will scale back proactive operations but will continue to respond to and investigate reports of suspicious activity,” officials said.

The agency also said that a close encounter last week between a drone and a Flight for Life helicopter appears unrelated to the recent swarm of reported activity.

Monday’s announcement effectively threw cold water on the idea that mystery drones are crowding the nighttime airspace. But Monday night, drone-spotting Facebook groups were still buzzing with fresh intel.

“Just watched 5 drones and one bright light hover, move slowly and disappear,” wrote Angela, who said she was in Colorado Springs.

“We counted 6 in the sky that we could see all at once!!” posted a woman in Nebraska.

“We counted at least 15+ at a time, and probably way more than that,” said another, watching from a Denver suburb.

So what explains the gap between what the government is saying, and dozens people who insist the drones really are up there?

One researcher believes the drones don’t really exist, calling the case an example of “social panic” or “collective delusion”, fueled in part by recent global anxiety, in much the same way that belief in flying saucers spiked during the paranoia of the Cold War.

“We’re living in a period of significant geo-political tension, combined with a relatively recent advent of high-functioning drones,” said Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist, author and professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Add to that the unprecedented mistrust of what our own government is telling us. Then you add to the mix the rise in so many people getting their news from unreliable sources on social media. And this creates a recipe for rumors and conspiracy theories.”

Echoing Colorado authorities, Bartholomew believes that well-meaning people are probably mistaking airplanes, planets and even satellites for drones. He says the echo chamber of unconfirmed rumors on social media then amplifies suspicion of the government and worry about what the drones might be capable of.

“We’ve never had high functioning drones before. It’s something that people are concerned about,” said Bartholomew, noting that in 2018 a drone packed with explosives was used in a failed assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Mistrust and mistaken sightings, Bartholomew says, can quickly grow into the belief that there’s a sinister conspiracy afoot.

“When people begin to be concerned about anything, be it drones, Bigfoot or flying saucers,” Bartholomew said, “all of the sudden they start to over scrutinize their environment and try to confirm or deny the rumors.”

Like many people, Nebraska contractor Alan Hamm says he just wants honest answers after seeing dozens of drones buzzing over deserted highways.

Hamm is keeping an open mind, but is not alone in the firm belief that something strange is happening out there.

“I’ve seen something I can’t explain,” Hamm tells ABC News. “This is a very true thing. It’s not something that is just made up, or a grand illusion.”

Ultimately, Bartholomew says, people will see what they want to see.

“There’s the old saying, ‘seeing is believing,’” Bartholomew said. “I like to say just the opposite: ‘believing is seeing’”.