Panic has been sparked in Georgia by a fake news broadcast reporting that Russia has repeated it’s 2008 invasion of the country and killed the president. This raises significant issues in terms of media responsibility and the artifice of news reporting, so obviously my first reaction was "Wow, that’s like the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast!" Because I’m an utter geek.
It’s 1938 and Orson ‘Voice of Unicron‘ Welles is working for the Mercury Theatre on the Air in New York. As a Halloween special, he puts together an adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, the gimmick being that the story is presented as real – news reports from Grover’s Mill start to reveal an alien invasion of the US in progress, with listeners becoming convinced that what they were hearing was real. Panic ensued – the exact extent of which is debated – and the controversy entered pop culture legend, with even Hitler citing it as an example of democracy’s failings. Somewhat bizarrely, HG Wells apparently ran into Orson after the event and spent the day discussing the whole situation (how exactly does HG Wells meet Orson Welles in a state as big as Texas BY COINCIDENCE?!).
Of course, while War of the Worlds may be the most famous media panic, it’s not the only one, as the incident in Georgia reminds us. Heck, it’s not the only War of the Worlds panic. In 1944, a version of WOTW broadcast in Chile prompted a panic (one man died of a heart attack, while a local governor put his troops on alert ready to fight off the invaders); a 1949 version in Ecuador resulted in the radio station being burned down by an angry mob – at least six people were killed as a result of the panic. In 1977, Britain tried to get in on the act with Alternative 3, an allegeded expose of the colonisation of Mars in advance of Earth’s environmental collapse. It didn’t have the impact of the others though, with the main reaction being a few upset phone calls to ITV; apparently some people stiil believe it to be real…
(It’s probably also worth mentioning Independence Day UK, which was a BBC -produced spin off from the movie, although it also tried to use elements of the WOTW broadcasts. The best bit is when TV astronomer Patrick Moore wrestles an alien. Seriously.)
Of course, these all take place within a context that established fairly early on that the media lie through their teeth. In 1874 the New York Herald reported that animals had escaped from Central Park Zoo and were eating people (they weren’t), while in 1926 a priest and broadcaster called Ronald Knox reported via the BBC that riotters were in the process of devastating London (they weren’t, although it played into fears of a working class revolution, and snow delaying the next day’s newspapers didn’t help the sense of unease).
And then there’s Ghostwatch, which wigged me out even though I knew it was fake. Because I’m a big wuss.
Smarter people than me can probably explain why these broadcasts had the impact they did, but I’m guessing it’s two-fold – partly because the enemy depicted is relentless and unstoppable and heading your way (and it’s worth noting that at least two of the broadcasts saw people reading the Martians as being code for genuine political enemies), and partly because it’s old school media where you hear about things but there’s no interaction and all you can do is sit and listen as the world ends around your ears… Which then makes me wonder if there’s a full-on Web 2.0 hoax waiting to happen. After all, the internet is as ubiquitous nowadays as radio and TV were when the other broadcasts took place.
So if Twitter starts telling you that Martians have landed in Birmingham – just remember to double-check before breaking out the torches and pitchforks…