Orson Welles

Orson Welles was the original #fakenews and nothing will convince me otherwise.

I’m taking a sociology class on media and pop culture, and today we talked about the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio incident. On October 30, 1938, a radio drama—presented as a series of news bulletins—unfolded to tell the story of Martians landing in New Jersey. Popular lore says that so many people believed it that there was a mass panic, and even an exodus from the Tri-State area as people tried to escape the alien invasion.

It’s unclear how big this “panic” really was, but there definitely were some people who believed the broadcast was true and acted accordingly. Princeton researchers visited New Jersey soon after the incident to interview people who had heard it, compiling data about people’s perceptions and how they reacted. This shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is: 30% of people who said they believed it was real also said they weren’t scared. Some quotes suggested that they assumed the end of the world was coming anyway, that they frankly weren’t that regretful about it, and that they were just going to eat the chicken they were saving for the next day now. Can you even imagine these people on Twitter? It’d be like… well, modern Twitter.

Welles claimed that he never meant to scare anyone, but his careful planning suggests otherwise. He was savvy to the power of this new media, and devised a plan to present it as a fake news show instead of a straight reading in order to attract more listeners. He strategically placed moments of silence for dramatic effect, a powerful and rarely used tool at the time. He knew that many people would be flipping around the channels after a popular puppet show ended, so he placed some dramatic action at the moment they’d be tuning in so they’d be hooked (and frightened) immediately.

It’s now generally understood that the newspapers exaggerated the amount of panic in order to discredit radio, which was stealing their audiences. At the time, newspapers were successful at significantly knocking back the credibility of radio, and would definitely never experience losing their audiences to new technology ever again.

This is a fascinating story for media studies, sociology, and many other disciplines, but the whole time we were talking about it I couldn’t stop thinking: Welles would have been such a good podcaster.