Print Edition - 2018-11-04  |  Free the Words

Welles and the birth of fake news

  • Many people believed “War of the Worlds” broadcast—but many didn’t
- A. BRAD SCHWARTZ

Nov 4, 2018-

Eighty years ago on Tuesday, Orson Welles revealed the terrifying power of fake news.

On Oct. 30, 1938, Welles directed a radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds,” reimagining its Martian invasion through fictitious news flashes. Many contemporary newspapers claimed the show sparked a mass panic, sending multitudes of listeners fleeing their homes in fear.

But that stubbornly persistent narrative is false. The myth of the “War of the Worlds” panic not only misinterprets how media persuasion and fake news actually work—it prevents us from understanding how to grapple with the problem today.

Over the past decade, a scholarly consensus has formed that the press grossly exaggerated the effects of Welles’s broadcast. Only a small fraction of radio listeners mistook it for real news, and precious few did anything that could be described as “panicking.” The better question, then, is why “The War of the Worlds” frightened some people but not others.

In 1938, the answer seemed clear. Many scholars believed radio could, like a hypodermic needle, inject ideas straight into people’s minds, convincing them of anything—even something as fantastical as an alien attack. But further investigation refuted this simplistic picture. A Princeton University survey of frightened listeners indicated only about a third understood the invaders to be Martians. The rest imagined something more plausible that they already feared, such as a Nazi blitzkrieg.

The broadcast, in short, didn’t bypass the conscious intellect to convince people of something they wouldn’t otherwise believe. It passed through pre-existing fears, attitudes and beliefs, to be corroborated or refuted within the mind of each listener. The most extreme examples of panic often came from people told to tune in by someone else. They responded not so much to the radio’s power as to the trust they placed in their particular messenger. Some never even heard the show itself.

Later studies of the mass media would confirm these two fundamental rules of persuasion. Media messages generally cannot convince audiences of something contrary to their existing attitudes or prejudices. But they can powerfully reinforce what people already believe. Second, especially in the age of social media, fake news is most powerful when it is shared — not just by prominent information sources but also by anyone on Twitter or Facebook.

The social media campaign carried out by Russian intelligence in 2016 to help elect President Trump depended on the very same persuasive factors that Welles unwittingly revealed. Russian operatives developed propaganda that, like “The War of the Worlds,” appealed to pre-existing fear and anger among the American public, activating voters inclined to vote Republican and giving Democrats reasons to stay home. This content was specifically designed to be shared, so that voters might encounter it through someone they trusted.

Crucially, unlike bygone broadcasters, Russian intelligence operatives could target their messages to specific portions of the electorate residing in key swing states, with propaganda tailor-made for small, specialised audiences already primed for persuasion.

Still, the basic means of fighting fake news haven’t changed much in 80 years. Many listeners frightened by “The War of the Worlds” tried to verify what they heard, either by changing stations or calling local authorities.

Such reflexive skepticism can and must be taught. The fundamentals of media literacy should occupy a central place in middle school and high school curriculums, arming students with the critical mind-set today’s media landscape demands.

But this problem cannot be solved solely on the individual level. As digital tools for falsifying images and video become ever more sophisticated and accessible, our democracy increasingly hinges on a question many Americans first considered in the wake of “The War of the Worlds.” As one Mississippian asked after the broadcast, in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, “How will we know when news is news, or when it is just fiction, if that is an example of future radio programs?”

That listener and others called upon their government to directly censor the radio. The Communications Act of 1934 required that broadcasters operate in “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.” The F.C.C., charged with implementing the law, took no official action. It didn’t need to. Just the threat of regulation was enough to persuade the major broadcast networks to censor themselves. Fearful of losing revenue by offending listeners, networks banned the use of news broadcast language in drama, reserving the trappings of journalism for actual reportage.

Today, social networks like Twitter and Facebook occupy the position once held by those broadcasters, serving as trusted conduits for news and information. That position must again come with a responsibility to serve the public interest by actively protecting users from misinformation.

Without impeding the flow of ideas, internet providers can and should place reasonable limits on how some ideas are expressed, both by strengthening efforts to block websites that mimic legitimate news sources and by shuttering accounts that spread counterfeit journalism—whether they represent individuals, automated “bots” or government entities.

If such action is not made a priority, voters must elect officials who will apply the same kind of pressure the F.C.C. did 80 years ago. Otherwise, we will all soon know what it felt like to be trapped in the scattered pockets of hysteria created by “The War of the Worlds”—surrounded by fear and misinformation, unable or unwilling to seek the truth.

Published: 04-11-2018 07:25

User's Feedback

Click here for your comments

Comment via Facebook

Don't have facebook account? Use this form to comment