W. Joseph Campbell

‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on January 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

The New York Times considers in a commentary posted yesterday the prospect of “digital wildfires” — how rumor and error spread by social media could give rise to panic and widespread turmoil.

It’s a catchy phrase, “digital wildfires.” But the commentary is largely speculative and, worse, it conjures the panic myth of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938.

“In 1938,” the commentary declares, “thousands of Americans famously mistook a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel ‘War of the Worlds’ for a genuine news broadcast. Police stations were flooded with calls from citizens who believed the United States had been invaded by Martians. …

“Is it conceivable that a misleading post on social media could spark a comparable panic?”

What “panic”?

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio program of October 30, 1938, set off a wildfire of panic is a hoary media myth — a myth so tenaciously held that not even a sustained social media campaign could undo it.

Like many media myths, the tale of the panic broadcast of 1938 is just too engrained, and too delicious, ever to be uprooted and delivered to the ash heap of history. As the Times commentary suggests, it’s an irresistible story, full of  illustrative potential.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But most listeners — in overwhelming numbers — recognized the dramatization for what it was, an imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

This conclusion is based on research by Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist, who studied the program’s aftermath. His research, while crude by contemporary standards, drew on interviews and a public opinion survey to estimate that at least 6 million people listened to The War of the Worlds program.

Of that number, Cantril estimated as many as 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard.

But Cantril did not specify what he meant by “frightened,” “disturbed,” and “excited” — terms not synonymous with “panic-stricken.”

As  Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions, has noted, there is scant evidence that many frightened listeners acted on their fears.

In short, what radio-induced fright there was that night did not rise to the level of broad panic or hysteria.

Had it — had panic swept the country — trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides. But none were linked to the program, as Michael J. Socolow noted in his fine essay in 2008.

The Times commentary notes that authorities “were flooded with calls” that night. Indeed, telephone volume surged during and immediately after the program, especially in metropolitan New York and New Jersey — ground zero for the fictive Martian invasion in The War of the Worlds show.

Police station, fire departments, and many newspaper offices reported receiving an unusually large number of telephone calls.

But call volume is a crude, and even misleading, marker of fear and alarm.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, increased call volume that night is better understood as “signaling an altogether rational response of people who neither panicked nor became hysterical, but who sought confirmation or clarification from external sources known to be usually reliable.”

Interestingly, the notion that a radio show did create panic gave newspapers an irresistible opportunity to assail their upstart rival medium.

By the late 1930s, radio was an increasingly important source for news and advertising, and American newspapers thus had, as I write, “competitive incentives to denounce radio, and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable.

“Many newspapers seized the chance to do with enthusiasm. It was as an opportunity they could not fail to let pass.”

The New York Times, for example, declared in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio”:

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

The Times and other American newspapers in 1938 seemed to delight in chastising radio. And their overwhelmingly negative commentary helped seal the erroneous view that The War of the Worlds dramatization had set off panic and mass hysteria.


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