The radio drama that shocked America 80 years ago and the modern birth of fake news | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.10.2018
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The radio drama that shocked America 80 years ago and the modern birth of fake news

The term "Fake News” has been around for a while. 80 years ago, Americans experienced a Fake News event that has an indelible place in 20th century legend.

On the evening of Sunday, October 30, 1938, listeners who had tuned in to dance music on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network heard a news flash interrupt the "regular" program. A series of unusual explosions had been observed on the planet Mars, and a mass of hydrogen gas was moving towards Earth.

The broadcast went back to dance music. Another news flash interrupted the orchestra, to inform listeners that a strange object had landed in a field in rural New Jersey.

Orson Welles directs his radio drama, with actor Ray Collins at the microphone and Bernard Herrmann conducting the CBS Radio Orchestra (Acme Telephoto)

Orson Welles, arms upraised, directs his radio drama, with actor Ray Collins at the microphone and Bernard Herrmann, later famous as a film music composer, conducting the CBS Radio Orchestra

The entire broadcast, music and all, ran during an installment of the radio series "Mercury Theatre on the Air," and in it, Orson Welles reworked H.G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi novel, War of the Worlds. In vivid detail, the live radio broadcast depicted a Martian invasion, with Welles using all the latest tricks known to radio broadcasting: interrupting programming with "special bulletins," use of "experts" to lend credibility to the unbelievable news, emotional actuality from the scene of events…

The alien invaders seemed unstoppable, as they incinerated entire armies with their heat rays and sent choking clouds of gas into New York City. Broadcast nationwide, the program was reported to have caused mass panic in a number of cities.

Arguably, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe had set out only to entertain, not to deceive. But the broadcast has to be taken in the context of the times during which it was made. The world lived in fear that Germany was preparing for war. Across the Atlantic, in England, families were running gasmask drills.

As the broadcast progressed, people were calling the police, claiming they could see smoke in the distance rising from the battle with the aliens. People even called police to report that they had seen the invading Martians. Some claimed that it was not Martians invading, but Germans.

But according to an article published in Slate Magazine five years ago to mark the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles' broadcast, the real "fake news” was spread the day after, when newspapers hyped up the panic and hysteria the program had created. That mass panic has now entered the public consciousness, but research suggests it was highly exaggerated.

Newspapers saw an opportunity to discredit radio. Papers, including the New York Times and the Boston Daily Globe, ran a campaign to paint the new medium as an unreliable and irresponsible news source. But somehow the mass-panic myth has persisted.

Michael Socolow, Associate Professor of Communications and Journalism at the University of Maine, and co-author of the Slate article, explained in an interview with DW that there are several reasons for that.

"The first is that it's a great story," he says. "The idea of a new media scaring people with an incredible and sensational broadcast is something we like to hear. It's almost like a conspiracy theory. But the other reason I think we really like it is: it lets us laugh at audiences in the past and think that somehow they were much more naive than we are today."

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times...

But, if you thought that trick could only be pulled off once, you'd be wrong. An episode of New York public broadcaster WNYC's acclaimed Radiolab program marking the 75th anniversary of Welles' broadcast says the hoax was repeated in Quito, Ecuador, in 1949. This time the panic was real. The streets filled with screaming, praying people. The army roared through the city in trucks and tanks, on their way to fight the Martians, thus increasing the panic. Once the show was over and people realized they'd been duped, fear turned to anger, and the crowds stormed the radio station, throwing rocks and breaking windows before setting fire to the building. Six people were killed.

And in the late 1960s, the trick with war of the Worlds was repeated on a radio station in Buffalo, New York, a city on the border to Canada. No deaths were reported, but panicked people called the police, and there are some reports that Canada deployed troops to secure a bridge.

Socolow says that because radio was a relatively new medium in 1938, it had not developed the same level of trust as the established printed media. But that doesn't explain how the hoax could be repeated, and repeated again. Socolow explains that there is something in hoaxes and fake news which pushes our emotional buttons.

Internet and social media ideal vehicles to spread Fake News

Nowadays, he says, the internet and social media constitute a new medium of communication that hasn't built the same level of credibility as the more traditional media. That makes them ideal vehicles for the dissemination of "fake news" in today's world. But Socolow says the Welles broadcast sparked the first serious examinations of media credibility.

"It really launched one of the great media literacy discussions in American history," he says. "Hitler even quoted on it. Hitler made a joke about little green men from Mars invading countries! So it launched perhaps the world's first large scale discussion, where people really wondered about this idea of believing new media."

Orson Welles sits with journalists after the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938(public domain)

Orson Welles sits with journalists after the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938

Although Welles said in 1938 that the production had been intended simply as entertainment, in a 1955 interview with the BBC he revealed his motives had been quite different.

"When we did the Martian broadcast we were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed," he said. "So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn't swallow everything that came through the tap."

Of course, all of that that was a long time before Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and the use of social media to spread fake news to influence the election outcome.

In a survey in September this year, most adults in the US, including more than 90 percent of Republicans, said they don't trust the mainstream media any more. Respondents said this was because of perceived bias, inaccuracy, "alternative facts" and "fake news" – terms used by President Trump and his staff.

Ever since he joined the presidential race, Trump has attacked "the lying media," and labeled anything that doesn't agree with his own views as "fake news."

There is conclusive evidence that to erode the vote for the Democratic party, Facebook was seeded with fake articles on websites designed to look like legitimate news sources - and these posts were actually shared more frequently than verified articles. Facebook has promised to reform. The company has hired teams of fact checkers, but they have trouble keeping up with the algorithms spreading misinformation.

Michael Socolow says there is a common lesson to take out of it all.

"We should constantly be aware, we should be thinking about what does it mean to trust our sources of information," he says. "And especially in an algorithmic universe, where Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, are curating our timelines only to show us things that they think we want. It's now on us, the user or the viewer, or the reader to be much more skeptical, and we need to be discussing media literacy more. That's what Welles was getting at."

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