Clearing the Black Smoke of Fake News

by Project Censored

by Andy Lee Roth

A 1938 radio broadcast, “The War of the Worlds,” dramatized an invasion by Martians whose technological powers vastly surpassed those of Earth’s human defenders. At the program’s climax, an “eyewitness” described the desperate scene as Martian machines attacked New York: “This is the end now… black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They’re running towards the East River… thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke’s spreading faster… People trying to run away from it, but it’s no use.” 

October 30th marks the eightieth anniversary of the broadcast, which is legendary for having supposedly led to mass panic throughout the United States. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the most famous episode of CBS’s “Mercury Theatre on the Air” is often invoked as a cautionary example of media’s mighty influence and the public’s vulnerability to media-induced hysteria. Revisiting the historic broadcast provides an opportunity to revise our shared understanding of what actually happened on the night of October 30, 1938, yielding insights relevant to contemporary concerns about “fake news.” 

Confronted by proprietary algorithms that covertly shape our news feeds, disingenuous pundits such as Alex Jones, and opportunistic political leaders including a president who consistently villainizes the press as “the enemy of the people,” many of us may conclude that “it’s no use” trying to find news worth trusting. Pervasive distrust of formerly respected information sources is paralleled by a glut of disinformation and propaganda that threatens, much like Martian black smoke, to suffocate our democracy.

The popular understanding that “War of the Worlds” caused public chaos is at odds with the facts. Media scholars Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have identified two factors that explain enduring tall tales about the broadcast. First, it took place when radio, a newly-developing medium, had begun to compete successfully with print for audience attention and advertising revenues. Newspaper editors sensationalized the panic in hopes of undermining trust in radio and encouraging government regulation of it. Second, the publication in 1940 of Hadley Cantril’s “The Invasion from Mars,” one of the first empirical studies of media effects on audiences, helped to reinforce the broadcast’s reputation as a prime example of mass hysteria.

Professional conflicts and financial motives led Cantril to overstate his study’s findings. 

Its most dramatic claims about “widespread panic” were not supported by the data, which was collected, and most carefully analyzed, by one of Cantril’s research assistants, Herta Herzog. Herzog and a team of four other researchers (all female) interviewed 135 audience members, most of whom were chosen for the study because they had supposedly been frightened by the broadcast. 

These interviews showed that, although many listeners found the broadcast “exciting,” few of them actually believed the program was a live report of an alien invasion. Instead, Herzog found that many audience members had engaged in “checking up,” the term she used to identify what listeners did to verify whether the broadcast was real or not. 

In “War of the Worlds,” after all human efforts to defeat the Martians had failed, what stopped the invaders was accidental exposure to bacteria “against which their systems were unprepared.” In 1938, despite radio’s growing influence and Orson Welles’s canny sense of realistic drama, what prevented an outbreak of widespread panic was “critical ability,” which wary audience members employed to determine that the extraordinary broadcast was fiction.

Much as human weapons proved useless against Martian invaders, we should not count on private corporations such as Facebook and Google to stop the spread of false information by blocking problematic content or offensive social media users. The enduring lesson of Herta Herzog’s underappreciated research is that individuals engaging their critical abilities can forestall collective hysteria. We should support public institutions that strengthen our capacities for critical thinking—including schools, libraries, and media literacy programs—as our best defense against the black smoke of false news and misinformation.

Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored and co-editor of the Project’s newest book, Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion.

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