Evaluating Information: War of the Worlds

Use What Where or Not at All

More than 100 years of "fake news"

False news has been going around forever. In its printed format, false news stories emerged at the same time news began to circulate widely after the invention of the printing press in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg. As printing circulated widely, so did bogus news - from sensational stories of sea monsters and fairies to religious explanations of natural events. “Real” news back then was difficult to verify, just as it is sometimes hard to tell truth from fiction today. 

Although the distribution of public lies for either political gain or financial profit can be found in most periods of history, it is in the late 19th century that the phenomenon of “yellow journalism“, and along with it the spread of fake news, reached the widespread popularity and the intense excitement of scandals that we are accustomed to today.

The term ‘fake news’ itself stems back, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to at least 1890s, which makes it more than 125 years old. Although not that commonly used in the modern times, the term has recently been popularised during the US election campaign in 2016.

One of the most popular "fake news" stories can be traced to Orson Welles' radio show  “The War of the Worlds” in New York in October 1938.

The 'original' fake news - "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast

With radio becoming the dominant source of breaking news in the 1930s, it is perhaps not so surprising to hear about the problem of “fake news”, and the panic and hysteria that followed the broadcasting of the most infamous radio talk show: The War of the Worlds.

Orson Welles' radio show “The War of the Worlds” aired on Sunday, October 30, 1938 in New York and caused national panic when the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) broadcast vividly described invading Martian armies, mostly through news bulletins that interrupted the program, without informing listeners it was entertainment. What followed was a mass panic across the country that made some listeners flee their homes as they believed a Martian invasion was really taking place. The massive hysteria was caused by the confusion of some listeners who tuned in to the broadcast of the play late and missed the introduction which provided the context for the broadcast.

”War of the worlds” was not planned as a radio hoax, and Welles had little idea of the chaos it would cause. Unwittingly, Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air made one of the most fascinating and significant demonstrations proving that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a completely unreasonable and irrational proposition creating a nation-wide panic.

Media articles:

The challenges of media literacy in the past

The invention, growth and expansion of radio technology caused a communication revolution equivalent to that of the digital revolution and the Internet today. For the first time, radio allowed a large audience to experience the latest news and breaking stories simultaneously from the comfort of their homes.
Radio broadcasting, in its early days, was seen as a means for spreading hysteria and animosity, just as the Internet is today.

How did people in the past figure out if they were dealing with fake news? As people were always trying to manipulate news for their own ends, it was as hard as it is today, if not harder - the “real” news was harder to verify back then. Critical judgment when consuming media was as necessary to apply in the past as it is today.

How real was the 'War of the Worlds" radio broadcast panic?

Ever since the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, many news outlets and news stories have accepted it as a fact that the radio show scared many Americans, and made it sound as if there was a very real mass panic following the show.

How real, however, was the “War of the Worlds" radio broadcast panic? Investigate the news media and derive your own conclusion taking into account the Authority Accuracy Currency Relevance evaluation criteria.

Suggested sources:

A definitive account of Orson Welles’s radio drama the “War of the Worlds”

A. Brad Schwartz, co-writer of an episode of the award-winning PBS series American Experience on the War of the Worlds broadcast, retells the story of Welles’s radio play, and its impact.

News and media literacy quiz - Is this news story real or fake?

Determining whether news is fake or real is not always easy. How likely is it you would have believed the radio news about the Martian invasion taking place had you lived in the 1930s?

And how inclined would you be to believe a similar story, or even a far more believable one today? This web game (below), developed by a team at the American University, displays news stories that have been published on the web. The objective of the game is to determine whether the news you are exposed to is real or fake. Remember to consider checking out the sources and information in the news story, and be aware of your own biases.

Have a go at Factitious and see it for yourself:

Can you tell real news from fake news?