On October 30th in 1938 Orson Welles’ infamous adaptation to HG Welles’ book The War of the Worlds broadcast over the airwaves. The public, not used to the mischief that could be played with the new method of mass communication known as radio was not prepared for the fast moving prank which caused so much panic in the form of a skillfully crafted radio play. But what if you turned on the news today and found a similar story being broadcast in the form of an alien invasion? How would the public react? How long before the invasion was widely believed? And what tools would assist in communicating the truth?
We see this in movies all the time, but is there a uniformed approach to how the public would react to the news of an alien invasion? Script writers often have characters reacting in ways that serve their scrip and the story best rather than how they would react themselves. The art of storytelling in this case supercedes realism, but it does not serve our experiment this time. Instead, let’s take a look at precedents set in the real world for how people react to various disasters.
But first we need a scenario. Let’s say an alien craft lands at a random location on Earth, in this case the Ural mountain range in Siberia. Springing forth tripod like legs the massive warships would then begin their march toward civilization spurring China and Russia to begin maneuvers to intercept. The first reports would likely come through social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, but the media would be easily blacked out entirely in light of the event. Independent media sources and websites would begin trickling out reports of the objects as unconfirmed reports of a mysterious battle started coming out. After this world governments may make an address once they realized the invasion was not going to be so easily covered up.
But how would people react? Film shows us images of everything from mass looting to people simply sitting transfixed around the television. One of the first things people generally do in times of political uncertainty is line up around the corner at the gas tank. The automobile is one way for families to feel they have control over their maneuverability. Ironically there may soon be a gridlock shortly therafter as people began enacting their plans to act at the last minute. Of course the other scenario would be simply for people to attempt to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible as was seen shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after 9/11. These are all reactions that have some precedent in recent history, although with other worldly events, not aliens.
There would also be, however, many rumors that would likely spread like wildfire. News media, in a quest for 24 hour information distribution may pick these up and even spread unverified rumors on a number of things to keep watchers tuned in hour after hour. A final press release from the president would confirm some of the most basic facts, assure everyone the situation was under control and proper measures were being taken, and urge caution and sensibility, but also not give many concrete details only driving the rumors to spread more quickly. And finally, whether the battle in the Ural mountain range was won or lost the public would begin preparing. Some areas would be on the verge of hysteria driven largely by speculation and fear.
But there is also another aspect that is hopeful. The part of the Mercury Theater broadcast of War of the Worlds that is not often talked about is the calm fashion most people, even while convinced the Martians were coming to end the world with terrible machines went about their daily activities and stuck together through the fearful night in an effort to band the human race together and protect one another. Hysteria is a quick to develop menace, yet even in this short time many found a more mature way to react. Humans are social creatures. And we are quick to make allies to help frighten away the darkness with the fires of the heart. Just as there had been an outpouring of compassion from all people after any disaster, it seems plausible that the human race would see even this threat with both bravery and cooperation.