“Incredible as it may seem, those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

–Orson Welles, War of the Worlds.

 

81 years ago, when radio was the primary medium of entertainment in the United States, radio broadcaster Orson Welles narrated a fictional show called “War of the Worlds” that the listening audiences mistook as an actual news report. He began by saying: “Ladies and gentleman, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring to you a special bulletin. Martians have landed in New Jersey.” This was followed by a very dramatized and sensationalized first-person narrative of Martians attacking the earth, along with sound effects and multiple narrations.

While the broadcast was in progress, there were a lot of reports about the panic created by the narration, as people hurried to find shelter from what they thought were ‘aliens’ attacking their homes. In the initial years following the 1938 broadcast there were a lot of myths created about peoples’ reaction to the broadcast. Additionally, a lot of sociologists in the United States used this incident as an example in academic settings to study the human reaction in situations of panic. However, a lot recently, these myths have been debunked as it has been suggested that the reports were highly exaggerated and there was no widespread panic as a result of the broadcast as had been reported earlier. This especially because there were not a lot of people listening to Orson Welles’ show at the time. Some recent theories suggest that the stories of panic were fabricated by newspapers to reduce radio’s legitimacy as a medium of information and entertainment in the United States.

This event is particularly important in the present context when fake news is at its very peak worldwide due to the ever-looming presence of social media. Fake news stories spark a lot of outrage on various applications such as WhatsApp, twitter and Facebook creating a lot of panic and noise about issues that may not necessarily be true. Various media outlets are working towards eliminating sources of fake news, but till that is achieved, there is an ever present possibility of misplaced panic and terror.