War of the Worlds Panic: Could it Happen Again?

When War of the Worlds was first broadcast from the Mercury Theater by Orson Welles a far flung Halloween night long ago, many expected to find themselves soon facing an oncoming alien onslaught.  But this was a different time when the radio was one of only a few windows to far off reaches of the world.  Another War of the Worlds panic scenario could never take place in 2010.  Or could it?  You may be surprised how easily a scare can be started by only a few people and a radio show.

Imagine sitting down with your family only a few minutes from the start of one of your favorite radio programs.  And as you turn the radio dial suddenly the dramatic “We interrupt this program to bring you breaking news from Grover’s Mill.”  As you lean in closer to hear the message you soon are informed that Martians have begun invading the Earth.  Of course this was the scene during the original and now infamous first broadcast of HG Welles’ War of the Worlds.  During the entire broadcast there were only four points where the show was revealed to be fake either in part or in whole.  And several of these parts seemed to be engineered to be easy to ignore or refuted at later parts of the story.  And many tuning in and out or with poor radio reception may have missed these points entirely.

So if the end of the world could be convincing to millions worldwide as they sit around in their living rooms hearing about it on the evening broadcast, what does this say about our own gullibility.  It has and likely will continue to be the overwhelming opinion that the War of the Worlds could never happen again.  They may be surprised, then to learn we are in fact just as likely to fall for such a trick if not more.

Even this year a broadcast was sent out from a local radio station telling of a cyberterrorist attack designed to mimic the original War of the Worlds broadcast.  And while most of the staff involved in the show didn’t know anything about the fictional nature of the show, many people in the surrounding community were convinced when a thunderstorm rolled through and caused wide power outages.  One of the elements of the show’s broadcast had been rolling power outages.  Needless to say there were several complaints.

And what of the internet?  With the media being increasingly put into the hands of private individuals and less into the hands of corporate interests there are several advantages, but also a lack of resources for several media outlets.  In other words, as the stories are broadcast the media has the potential to move like a school of fish, with each fish following the lead of every other toward prospective stories.  And in doing so, there is often a lack of navigational insight over the whole.  There is little doubt in my mind that in the future this will result in a tremendously powerful hoax manipulating a media feeding frenzy and ultimately creating yet another War of the Worlds type scenario.