October 31, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Could the 'War of the Worlds' scare happen today?

Could the 'War of the Worlds' scare happen today?
Related Stories

Welcome to the era of gullibility 2.0

May 21, 2007
Related Blogs

MSNBC mistakes a 'fake Al Sharpton' blog for the real thing

August 26, 2007

Bomb scare blows up in Boston's face

February 1, 2007
In 1938, a convincing actor with a good script and access to a national media outlet could cause mass panic in a matter of minutes.

For a Halloween special aired the night before the holiday, the CBS radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a documentary-style adaptation of H.G. Wells' science fiction novel The War of the Worlds directed and narrated by actor Orson Welles. The now-legendary premise was that martians had landed in rural New Jersey, midway between the metropolises of New York and Philadelphia, and were wreaking havoc with poison gas and heat rays.

Like any fictional radio broadcast of the time, the Mercury Theatre Halloween special had opening and closing credits. Unfortunately, a sizable number of listeners seemed to miss that part. Reports detailed stories of people fleeing their homes, flooding their local police stations with telephone calls, and the rumor mill running wild. The front page of The New York Times the next day featured a story with the headline "Radio listeners in panic, taking war drama as fact."

Click for gallery

Could The War of the Worlds panic happen again? While it's hard to imagine a scripted performance causing people to arm themselves against an alien invasion today (and a radio show certainly wouldn't do it), misunderstanding and misinformation can still lead to mass hysteria, as the city of Boston learned nearly seven decades later.

A passenger on the city subway alerted authorities to a "suspicious device" near the Interstate 93 highway on January 31, 2007. Soon, other people started spotting more of them around the city. After subway station closings, transportation delays, a halt to bridge and river traffic, and anxious mayoral press conferences, officials started to realize the threat was actually a marketing campaign for the cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the "suspicious devices" in question were light-up images of the program's "Mooninite" characters.

But this time around, the paranoia that ensued wasn't a national crisis, but a national joke with Boston as the punchline. The New York Times (in the form of a blog post) filed it under "the major 'oops' department."

The War of the Worlds era is long over. We're no less gullible than we were seven decades ago, but it's more difficult to fool a huge number of people in a short span of time. "There is (now) a suspicion and a cynicism toward information that was not the case in 1938," said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.

We're too cynical

Concern over the plausibility of mainstream media reports, from allegedly rampant shark attacks to that incident involving the letters "W," "M," and "D," has made news consumers understandably skeptical about what's on TV or the Web. Entire Web sites, like Snopes.com, exist to debunk the content of those "warning" e-mails that have been forwarded around since the dawn of Hotmail. Eagle-eyed Wikipedia loyalists keep tabs on exactly what alterations are made to the "open" encyclopedia.

And the cutthroat competition of media outlets, from blogs to cable news channels, has made it even more appealing for one network or publication to catch another in an embarrassing faux pas. "For most of the country, by the time we heard the news about it, it was already being debunked," Thompson said of the Mooninite incident. "That's the big difference. The first news I heard about the whole Aqua Teen Hunger Force scare was about the big hand-wringing after the fact."

Most misinformation these days can be quickly debunked, like the hoax Apple memo that ever-so-briefly caused the company stock to dive before it was exposed as a fake minutes later.

"There is (now) a suspicion and a cynicism toward information that was not the case in 1938."
--Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture, Syracuse University

"I don't think something quite like the Orson Welles thing could happen again in this day and age, probably because of the Internet," said Charlie Todd, founder of the New York-based Improv Everywhere, a troupe of "undercover agents" that "causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." Todd says he still hears about people on the Internet who see YouTube footage of Improv Everywhere pranks--like a staged protest of several dozen redheads picketing a Wendy's fast-food restaurant over its allegedly "racist" mascot--and think they're real. But he dismisses such viewers. "If anyone was intelligent enough to read the description of the video right next to the video, they'd see it was a fake protest."

Likewise, a fake news story that accidentally gets circulated as a real one tends to spawn less hysteria from gullible believers, and more ridicule directed at the erring news outlet. Gregory Galant, founder of fake news outlet News Groper, was surprised when an MSNBC story quoted his site's over-the-top "fake Al Sharpton" blog as a blog that was actually written by the civil rights advocate. "We were sitting around the office one afternoon, and all of a sudden I noticed we were getting all this traffic from MSNBC, and we were kind of baffled," Galant said. "We were just speechless. It's just like, one of these moments where you never think that's going to happen." Because, in the age of rapid-fire fact-checking thanks to a quick Google search, something like that just isn't supposed to occur.

Within a few hours, of course, MSNBC had corrected its error. Just as with the Mooninite incident, the most extensive coverage came from snarky bloggers taking shots at gullible mainstream media.

But on the other hand, even if the rapid spread of information on the Web has meant that legitimate mass hysteria and major misconceptions are restricted to niche interest groups or metro areas (say, Boston) rather than entire countries, the sociological reverberations remain the same. Both The War of the Worlds radio announcement and the Mooninite scare, for example, have deep roots in paranoia over national security.

"In the late '30s, at the very time when that War of the Worlds thing played, we were constantly listening to our radios and hearing 'We interrupt this program with breaking news,'" Thompson said. "And it would be bad news, as the prelude to the Second World War was going on. Orson Welles used that idiom of radio talk, that interrupting the message or dangerous talk that we were not only completely used to, but used to taking very seriously."

And then there's the possibility of (figurative) planetary alignment: if governments and major media outlets promote something as truth, the populace both online and offline will likely follow suit.

Thompson raised the well-documented Y2K paranoia as an example of such. Despite extensive corporate and government measures put into place to specifically make sure the world's technological backbone didn't collapse on January 1, there was still anxiety over an impending technological meltdown in the last few days of 1999. "That was probably one of the great War of the Worlds types of moments because it stretched over a long period of time and then, of course, nothing happened," Thompson said. "If you went as far as to get some cash from the cash machine a couple of days before New Year's, that's a sign that this story did enough to alter behavior."

See more CNET content tagged:
radio, Boston, transportation, blog


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
It Already Has: "Global Warming"!
If Al Gore can get a Nobel Prize for a movie based on a slide show which in turn is pure fiction, then Orson Welles should get a prize posthumously. George Lucas should get one for warning us about the evil galactic empire......
Posted by ljkiii (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
What's it like...
living with your head stuck in the sand? Probably pretty peaceful
when you probably also believe that evolution doesn't exist, and
the War in Iraq is about Democracy and spreading "Freedom"

I assume you know where the WMDs are that Iraq was hiding...
Posted by jelloburn (252 comments )
Link Flag
"If Al Gore can get a Nobel Prize for a movie based on a slide show which in turn is pure fiction"

you know global warming.. is real.. right? it is no longer a debate. if you do debate it, you are an idiot. so every reputable scientist says. the part thats up for debate is 'are we the cause of it', not 'is it real'.

way to keep up with the facts
Posted by eyenine (4 comments )
Link Flag
Here's proof...
...that (thanks to the internet) we'll never run short on our supply of morons who will believe whatever suits their small minds best.
Posted by jorvis (3 comments )
Link Flag
There are so many things that could be said about your post but the one thing that sums it up best is moron. That being, "a person who is notably stupid or lacking in good judgment."
Posted by drewbyh (91 comments )
Link Flag
Damn, you beat me to it.
"Global Warming" was the 1st thing I thought of. In 100 years or so when the history of this period is objectively written, "Global Warming" will go down as the "scam of the century".
Posted by JohnMcGrew (50 comments )
Link Flag
It Certainly Has!
The big difference though is the the global warming thing is done through constant repetition. Where "War of the Worlds" relied on a large portion of the audience not hearing the opening of the show because they were tuned in elsewhere, the global warming scare relies on constant repetition in multiple media for its "success." Welles only had one shot at this, and it was, for the most part, accidental.
Posted by drjoewebb (6 comments )
Link Flag
Lesson One
Can you say "Hurricane Katrina"? Excellent! We'll continue with Lesson Two tomorrow.
Posted by adamopolis (25 comments )
Link Flag
9/11 has a lot of people paranoid, they are ripe for being Wellesed.
Posted by Lee in San Diego (608 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Want "scary"?
Try replacing the dollar with the Amero, combining the North
American continent as Mexamericanada and the loss of being an
independent nation under the New World Order and the unraveling
of the US Constitution. Or the new religion of environmentalism. Or
the continuation of the worldwide Recession since February,
possibly going into a Depression of 2008. Any or all of the above.
THAT's scary. ;^)
Posted by pritchet1 (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
speaking of depression
now I'm depressed.

What ever happened to "One Nation"? (I personally agree with the "Under God" part too)

Our founders didn't intend for us to be a nation of nations, but one nation of fairly independent states.

I'm sure the founders of this great country are turning over in their graves!
Posted by harriscjbb (4 comments )
Link Flag
Saddam was the "W" "M" "D"
Here murdered tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. If that's not a "weapon" of mass desctruction, I don't know what is!
Posted by WJeansonne (480 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Change the letters
There are leaders in Africa and South America who have killed many more people than Saddam. Why didn't we "liberate" them? Oh, because it's not W-M-D. It's O-I-L.
Posted by cybervigilante (529 comments )
Link Flag
And who bought Saddam weapons, including chemical weapons?
Oh yeah, the US under the insane "leadership" of Ronnie Reagan.

Guess who funded and trained Bin Laden. Yup, our pal Ronnie
Posted by The_Decider (3097 comments )
Link Flag
Not quite but close
Todays example is called MRSA. The brain-eating amoeba is probably more dangerous, but it triggers the skepticism factor. The MRSA scare has been fed by years warnings about the coming superbug. Many people seem to think it has arrived. Schools are closed for cleaning. Students are removed from school. No screaming in the streets - yet.
Posted by gregmar (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"Wellesed" in 1980s: "NBC Special Report"
In the early 1980s, NBC ran a 2-hour docudrama called "Special Report," about a group of terrorists with a home-made atomic bomb who took over the naval base in Charleston SC with demands. At the end of the broadcast, a badly-executed attempt to rush them resulted in the bomb going off, resulting in the evacuation of Charleston and radiation warnings over the area for years to come.

Despite warnings at the beginning and end of every segment (with commercials in-between)... despite the fact that the drama took place over 2-1/2 days, not 2 hours... and despite the appearance of numerous regularly working character actors, and an actor as anchor who was at the time starring in St. Elsewhere, one of the most popular and top-rated series of the time... phone lines were swamped that night by concerned citizens trying to verify their friends' and relatives' whereabouts, or to get in touch with government leaders and authorities, and groups began to organize aid!

So, sure, a Wellesian scare could happen again. People in America really are capable of being that dim.
Posted by Steve Jordan (126 comments )
Reply Link Flag
it just isn't possible. There's just too many places to get the news on TV.
Posted by Tomcat Adam (272 comments )
Link Flag
I agree - there are many dim people
The common thread between this 80s one and the war of the worlds broadcast is that the radio was a prominent medium that people relied upon for news and Welles used that perfectly.

In the 80s one it wasn't that people had a limited range of media sources - just that they were happy to believe something to be true after watching just one of them.

At present I see many comments, from Americans in particular, which suggest a limited scope of knowledge and thought about various matters. Perhaps this is because they only watch one media source, perhaps it is a lack of education, perhaps it is just that many people just don't actively think or seek information or clarification.

Think of a man driving in unfamiliar territory. He will never ask directions out of some strange sense of pride. The phrase 'healthy scepticism' arose for a reason - it is about whether you have a tendency towards belief or disbelief. I believe that disbelief is a better starting point because beliefs, especially strongly held ones, can be barriers to further thinking and learning. Another problem is that people strive so hard to belong that a flock of people will behave irrationally with not one having the balls to say - hang on, we're going crazy here.

There is an ovbious example of people's strange willingness to believe and belong which i won't mention. There are many examples of principle going out the window due to hysteria too.
Posted by jezzur (191 comments )
Link Flag
Are you kidding?
We're at war, and thousands are dead, over imaginary weapons of mass destruction and you ask if this could happen again? It happens every day! It probably couldn't happen over the radio, but online....oh, certainly. Easy.
Posted by torayume (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Boston was different
There is a difference between mass hysteria and a few government agencies panicking. The public didn't have much of a reaction to the mooninite incident. Of course there was a major difference in scale as well.
Posted by skrubol (181 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No cure for paranoid gullability
We live in an age where it's a better career move to shut down a city over a toy, than it is to take the risk - however farfetched - that the worst-case scenario could happen and would be blamed on you.
...Now, take off your shoes & get in that line.
Posted by punterjoe (163 comments )
Link Flag
We Had Roswell
We had Roswell, but in that case it was the opposite. There was something there, but it was spun as there NOT being something there.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not to sure
Even though we have gotten a little smarter (maybe), we are still pretty easy to fool. And with news sites and TV news such as CNN, Fox, and others, I don't think it would take much to scare the daylights out of everyone.
Posted by Michael00360 (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
oh, puh-leeze
So you think a WOTW-like scare couldn't happen? HAH - it already has.

Iraq has been one very long script written by those whose major tool has been fear.

Hopefully, Grovers Corners will wake up very soon.
Posted by Rita McKee (27 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Could it happen again?
Actually, there's some serious debate about whether it actually happened at the time. It seems that the "panic" was actually minimal (not actually non-existant), it's just the reporting of the events blew the story out of proportion. (And since then, as the linguistics professor said, "The tale grew in the telling".)

In other words, it was mostly a media beat-up. Something that happens with an alarming regularity.
Posted by Anome (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Stick to the tech talk Cnet
Talk about laptops and tvs.
Posted by ferretboy88 (676 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It is all about boredom. and fun!
People who are stuck in there boring little lives will believe anything just for a bit of excitement. This is not a bad thing, it is just an extension of the games we played as kids.

I would think that 9 out of 10 of the people who fell for the War of the Worlds scare knew deep down that it was not true. I think that 9 out of 10 of the people if they were honest would admit that it was a great deal of fun.

Bring on the aliens!
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It is happening... now
We are a nation of fearful people, easily manipulated by people who want to use fear to control us - and they know it works, repeatedly. The War of the Worlds was a dress rehearsal for the fear drama that we live daily now. We're in Iraq because of that fear. We have our government wiretapping our every communication because of that fear. We have thrown out Habeas Corpus because of fear. We have accepted someone who was not elected president as our president twice in a row, because of fear. Fear is the dark underbelly of our overpriveleged lifestyle, and anyone who tells us that we are about to lose it has our hearts in his hands. "Give me liberty or give me death" the famous quote goes. We've chosen the opposite: let us keep our unfulfilled lives and we'll happily give up our liberties.
Posted by enovikoff (170 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It still happens every day.
People fear the word terrorist enough to let the government take control in places they have no business dwelling in and destroying the things they wish to protect.

Religious groups fear gays and other religions enough to fight for eliminating what they do no believe for fear alone.

People put up with police brutality for fear they'll be targeted next.

Fear and manipulation about Marijuana started because of large companies not liking competition from hemp products.

Fear over natural weight loss drugs such as Ephedra led to it's removal because of a few deaths (mostly abuse) while FDA approved Phen-Phen caused more deaths and destruction.

This scares will continue as long as man does not sit down and not only hear another's point of view but try to understand it. Replace fear with understanding is never a bad thing.
Posted by Sparky650 (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It happened more than once
We should not be so smug that it happened long ago in 1938, it happened again in 1944, 1949 and most recently in 1968! Check out the stories at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/radiohome.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/radiohome.htm</a>
Posted by johngos (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Did you know...
...that the temperatures in the Antarctic have been getting colder, not warmer and the ice pack thicker for the last 30 years?

Meanwhile, average temperatures in Greenland have been falling at the rather steep rate of 2.2 degrees Celsius since 1987. Summer temperatures, which are most relevant to Greenland ice sheet melting rates, do not show any persistent increase during the last fifty years.

You are right in that there's little debate over "global warming" when you're free to cherry pick your data they way the "warmongers" do.
Posted by JohnMcGrew (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The problem is not
That most Americans truly are stupid(that is a huge problem though).

The problem is that the US government and the media have trained the US population to be fearful rats.
Posted by The_Decider (3097 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Too Many Fakes Today!
People just don't tell the truth anymore!
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://fakesteveballmer*blogspot.com" target="_newWindow">http://****************.blogspot.com</a>
Posted by ceoballmer (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.