Eighty years ago today, US radio aired Orson Welles’ dramatisation of The War of the Worlds. The broadcast is still notorious thanks to its realistic news bulletin style – interrupting faux weather reports and recordings of orchestral performances to update listeners on a Martian invasion. The reports of ‘mass hysteria’ which followed were splashed across front pages from Detroit to New York. Now, in a world where the term has become ubiquitous, the show can perhaps be re-evaluated as one of the earliest broadcast examples of fake news.
Opinion today is divided on how much panic there really was. Many modern commentators now believe that the print media deliberately exaggerated the impact to highlight their fears about the reliability of radio and the people running it.
Putting this debate aside, looking at the points the press made at the time has reminded me of some of the warnings we see about social media today. Editorials exclaimed that the broadcast was done in “exactly the same manner” as real news, slammed producers and owners for letting it air and warned that the medium “hasn’t mastered itself or the material it uses”. The overall message was that the new technology shouldn’t be trusted as a news source.
Fast-forward to today, and concerns over social media fuelling fake news are much further reaching than slightly-too-convincing Halloween dramas. However, it’s interesting to note that worries over emerging forms of media are nothing new. What sets social media apart is the changing emphasis on the role of the consumer in managing it.
The instant and unedited style of content limits platforms’ options in stopping the flow of fake news; much of what they can do is necessarily reactive rather than proactive. Social media users are the driving force behind fake news spreading, and as such we are the first line of defence in slowing it down. We need to take the time to analyse sources of information, regardless of whether they tie in with our own world view, rather than just believing what we see and hitting the retweet button.
At the end of the broadcast, Orson Welles broke character to assure his audience that the invasion wasn’t real – it was merely Hallowe’en. He also told them to remember “the terrible lesson you learned tonight”. The basic rules we can adopt to avoid being fooled by fake news are perhaps not too different from what a group of unsuspecting Americans learned 80 years ago.
Take things with a pinch of salt – especially at Hallowe’en (and 1st April).
Question what you’re being told and, if in doubt, try to verify it.
Don’t just panic and tell your neighbours the aliens are coming.
Chris Tutton is a senior account executive at Camargue