The War on the Gullible

75 years after the ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast, Americans are still panicked by fake news.

Susan J. Douglas

The original poster for the War of the Worlds.

Sev­en­ty-five years ago, on Octo­ber 30, 1938, one of the most noto­ri­ous media events in our his­to­ry occurred: the instant­ly infa­mous CBS War of the Worlds” broad­cast. Even today, most peo­ple know the basic sto­ry. In hon­or of Hal­loween, Orson Welles and his col­leagues at the Mer­cury The­atre on the Air staged a radio play ver­sion of H.G. Wells’ sto­ry, with Mar­tians land­ing in Grover’s Mill, N.J. and work­ing their way toward New York City, releas­ing poi­son gas as they went. By the end of the broad­cast, CBS’s switch­board was ablaze, phone lines to police sta­tions were jammed, peo­ple around the coun­try were pan­ick­ing, and peo­ple in Newark, N.J. wrapped their faces in wet tow­els and drove like hell out of town. Typ­i­cal head­lines were Radio Station’s Attack By Mars’ Pan­ics Thou­sands” and Many Flee Homes to Escape Gas Raid’ from Mars.” Those who tuned in late and did not hear the open­ing dis­claimer that this was a play were espe­cial­ly prone to being scared. In the first three weeks after the broad­cast, news­pa­pers around the coun­try ran more than 12,500 sto­ries about its impact. Researchers esti­mat­ed, con­ser­v­a­tive­ly, that about 6 mil­lion peo­ple (a small audi­ence then) heard the show, and about a mil­lion or so were gen­uine­ly frightened.

There was another factor that helps explain the panic—certain people were more likely than others to believe the invasion was real.

It’s tempt­ing today to feel supe­ri­or to those lis­ten­ers who pan­icked, and to think noth­ing like this could hap­pen today, espe­cial­ly giv­en the mul­ti­ple means — TV, Google, Twit­ter — for dou­ble check­ing such a sto­ry. But peo­ple often for­get the cli­mate in which this hap­pened. It was still the Great Depres­sion, with the unem­ploy­ment rate hov­er­ing around 19 per­cent. In places like Flint, Mich., near­ly half of the city’s fam­i­lies were on pub­lic relief. In 1937, 477 sit-down strikes took place, involv­ing about 400,000 work­ers. And even as Amer­i­cans were expe­ri­enc­ing this seem­ing­ly relent­less eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty, anoth­er world war seemed immi­nent. Just one month before the broad­cast, Hitler, hav­ing already annexed Aus­tria, demand­ed that Ger­many be allowed to annex a por­tion of Czecho­slo­va­kia. With radio an increas­ing source of news for Amer­i­cans, mil­lions were glued to their sets that Sep­tem­ber, accus­tomed to hav­ing reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming inter­rupt­ed by urgent news bul­letins and on-the-spot report­ing about the lat­est nego­ti­a­tions, tur­moil in Czecho­slo­va­kia and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Ger­man inva­sion. And then, of course, War of the Worlds,” mim­ic­k­ing the news bul­letin style, was very skill­ful­ly done.

But there was anoth­er fac­tor that helps explain the pan­ic — cer­tain peo­ple were more like­ly than oth­ers to believe the inva­sion was real. The major study of the pan­ic, The Inva­sion From Mars by Hadley Cantril (1940), found that those who exam­ined either the facts of the show — that space­ships from Mars couldn’t pos­si­bly arrive in a mat­ter of min­utes — or went to exter­nal sources, by chang­ing chan­nels or look­ing up the descrip­tion of the show in the news­pa­per, under­stood the sto­ry was fic­ti­tious. Those who failed to fact check” in some man­ner were more like­ly to pan­ic, as were those with the least edu­ca­tion and those who were high­ly sug­gestible. The researchers also found that reli­gios­i­ty was an impor­tant fac­tor in peo­ple falling for the broad­cast; those who had strong, Bible-based beliefs thought this was the apoc­a­lypse, an act of God.

While it might be the case that a War of the Worlds” pan­ic could not hap­pen today, we have been wit­ness­ing a slow­er, more long-term titra­tion of pan­ic through the media, espe­cial­ly Fox News and right-wing radio, often affect­ing audi­ences not dis­sim­i­lar from those described above. Many believe that the Afford­able Care Act would man­date death pan­els,” that Oba­ma wasn’t born in the Unit­ed States, that cli­mate change is a hoax, that vac­cines cause autism, that humans and dinosaurs coex­ist­ed, that abor­tions cause breast can­cer, that you can’t get preg­nant from a rape that is legit­i­mate,” and on and on. Remem­ber, Bush, Cheney et al. con­vinced about half of Amer­i­cans that Sad­dam Hus­sein was behind 911.

So before we look back at 1938 with a smug sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty and imag­ine that peo­ple today would nev­er fall for a delib­er­ate­ly staged set of fic­tions, we need to appre­ci­ate that it’s just the deliv­ery that’s dif­fer­ent: not a one-shot blast of mis­in­for­ma­tion and pan­ic, but a steady drip, drip, drip of cor­ro­sion much more dam­ag­ing than any­thing pro­duced by the Mer­cury The­atre in 1938.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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