Every few years, an eerie cycle plays out in the news. Headlines report the sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs/UAPs). Then, a government agency issues a denial.
In 2006, employees at Chicago O’Hare International Airport described seeing an unidentified object hovering quietly near a terminal. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dismissed it as a weather event.
Then in 2014, Navy pilots reported seeing a series of spinning saucers. The Pentagon did not comment at the time. Later in 2021, an American Airlines pilot said a long, cylinder-shaped object flew over his aircraft and resembled a missile. In response, the FAA said that no such object appeared on official radars.
This cycle of UFO sightings and official denial has fueled conspiracy theories that the U.S. government is hiding alien information from the public. And in recent months, revelations from former government workers have prompted more people to believe these conspiracy theories might be legitimate.
What Is a Conspiracy Theory?
A conspiracy theory is the belief that a small group of people are acting secretly, and their actions are meant to benefit their exclusive group. The idea that aliens exist is not a conspiracy theory. It becomes a conspiracy theory only when people believe that a small group — typically government insiders — are hiding information about aliens from the rest of us.
When it comes to UFO conspiracy theories, the U.S. government tends to take the blame. More so, conspiracy theorists tend to merge the U.S. government into a singular identity, even though scholars argue there are millions of people who work for “the government.”
Have Alien Conspiracy Theories Increased?
Conspiracy theories become more palatable to nonbelievers when trustworthy (or seemingly trustworthy) informants come forward with information. The last decade has seen an increase in credible-seeming people stating they have either witnessed UFOs or have evidence the government knows about aliens and is hiding them from the rest of the public.
In 2023, a former official at the Pentagon, David Grusch, came forward as a self-described whistle-blower who once served on the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. He claimed the U.S. had debris from a spacecraft of “nonhuman origin.”
Grusch also said the U.S. has known about alien aircraft for decades, and his statements were helped by other government reports, including a 2021 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that didn’t deny UFO sightings and instead admitted there were a lot of unanswered questions.
UFO Crash Coverups
One common UFO conspiracy theory, including the one proposed by Grusch, is that the government is hiding remnants of a UFO that crashed into the Earth. One of the first crash coverup conspiracies began in 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, when reports of debris from a flying saucer were discovered near a military base.
The U.S. military dismissed the debris as a weather balloon, not a flying saucer. As the decades passed, conspiracy theorists believed the government knew it was actually a UFO and intentionally hid the truth.
It turns out the government was indeed hiding something — it just wasn’t a spaceship filled with little green Martians. In 1994, the General Accounting Office (GAO) audited the records related to the Roswell incident and released a report of their findings.
In 1947, the U.S. worried about Russian nuclear capabilities. They were trying to monitor the upper atmosphere for evidence of Russian nuclear testing using a balloon device. When the balloon crashed, the U.S. military didn’t want the world to know what they were really doing. The UFO conspiracy theory was a helpful distraction.
Another common UFO conspiracy theory is that the government not only has the remnants of an alien spaceship, but they also have the occupants in custody.
Area 51, located in Nevada, has long been suspected of harboring crashed UFOS and extraterrestrial beings. One scholar described Area 51 as an “open secret” in which people understand the government is doing something but don’t know exactly what.
Area 51 is closed to the public, and the nearest public viewpoint is 12 miles away. In the 1980s, conspiracy theorists began promoting the idea that the government had aliens tucked away at Area 51.
Storming Area 51
The theory was heightened in the late 1980s by an ex-employee who claimed he saw alien spacecraft with “gravity generators” when he worked at Area 51. He argued the U.S. government was hiding what they knew about extraterrestrial life from the American people.
The ex-employee also boasted he held degrees from prestigious institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When reporters researched his background and found no evidence he attended these schools, the ex-employee said the government erased his background so he would not exist on record because he was working with such highly-classified information.
The ex-employee was eventually discredited, and the government seemed to ignore him. However, the Air Force’s tolerance for alien accusations has its limits. In 2019, a Facebook group developed the idea to “Storm Area 51” because they “can’t stop all of us.”
More than a million people signed the pledge to show up at Area 51 and “see them aliens.” The Air Force issued firm warnings not to come, and the event was over before it began.