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Could the 'War of the Worlds' scare happen today?

In 1938, a Halloween-themed radio broadcast sent Americans into panic over a fictional martian invasion. A lot's changed since then. Photos: Hoaxes, mess-ups and pranks--oh my

In 1938, a convincing actor with a good script and access to a national media outlet could cause mass panic in a matter of minutes.

For a Halloween special aired the night before the holiday, the CBS radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a documentary-style adaptation of H.G. Wells' science fiction novel The War of the Worlds directed and narrated by actor Orson Welles. The now-legendary premise was that martians had landed in rural New Jersey, midway between the metropolises of New York and Philadelphia, and were wreaking havoc with poison gas and heat rays.

Like any fictional radio broadcast of the time, the Mercury Theatre Halloween special had opening and closing credits. Unfortunately, a sizable number of listeners seemed to miss that part. Reports detailed stories of people fleeing their homes, flooding their local police stations with telephone calls, and the rumor mill running wild. The front page of The New York Times the next day featured a story with the headline "Radio listeners in panic, taking war drama as fact."

Could The War of the Worlds panic happen again? While it's hard to imagine a scripted performance causing people to arm themselves against an alien invasion today (and a radio show certainly wouldn't do it), misunderstanding and misinformation can still lead to mass hysteria, as the city of Boston learned nearly seven decades later.

A passenger on the city subway alerted authorities to a "suspicious device" near the Interstate 93 highway on January 31, 2007. Soon, other people started spotting more of them around the city. After subway station closings, transportation delays, a halt to bridge and river traffic, and anxious mayoral press conferences, officials started to realize the threat was actually a marketing campaign for the cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the "suspicious devices" in question were light-up images of the program's "Mooninite" characters.

But this time around, the paranoia that ensued wasn't a national crisis, but a national joke with Boston as the punchline. The New York Times (in the form of a blog post) filed it under "the major 'oops' department."

The War of the Worlds era is long over. We're no less gullible than we were seven decades ago, but it's more difficult to fool a huge number of people in a short span of time. "There is (now) a suspicion and a cynicism toward information that was not the case in 1938," said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.

We're too cynical

Concern over the plausibility of mainstream media reports, from allegedly rampant shark attacks to that incident involving the letters "W," "M," and "D," has made news consumers understandably skeptical about what's on TV or the Web. Entire Web sites, like Snopes.com, exist to debunk the content of those "warning" e-mails that have been forwarded around since the dawn of Hotmail. Eagle-eyed Wikipedia loyalists keep tabs on exactly what alterations are made to the "open" encyclopedia.

And the cutthroat competition of media outlets, from blogs to cable news channels, has made it even more appealing for one network or publication to catch another in an embarrassing faux pas. "For most of the country, by the time we heard the news about it, it was already being debunked," Thompson said of the Mooninite incident. "That's the big difference. The first news I heard about the whole Aqua Teen Hunger Force scare was about the big hand-wringing after the fact."

Most misinformation these days can be quickly debunked, like the hoax Apple memo that ever-so-briefly caused the company stock to dive before it was exposed as a fake minutes later.

"There is (now) a suspicion and a cynicism toward information that was not the case in 1938."
--Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture, Syracuse University

"I don't think something quite like the Orson Welles thing could happen again in this day and age, probably because of the Internet," said Charlie Todd, founder of the New York-based Improv Everywhere, a troupe of "undercover agents" that "causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." Todd says he still hears about people on the Internet who see YouTube footage of Improv Everywhere pranks--like a staged protest of several dozen redheads picketing a Wendy's fast-food restaurant over its allegedly "racist" mascot--and think they're real. But he dismisses such viewers. "If anyone was intelligent enough to read the description of the video right next to the video, they'd see it was a fake protest."

Likewise, a fake news story that accidentally gets circulated as a real one tends to spawn less hysteria from gullible believers, and more ridicule directed at the erring news outlet. Gregory Galant, founder of fake news outlet News Groper, was surprised when an MSNBC story quoted his site's over-the-top "fake Al Sharpton" blog as a blog that was actually written by the civil rights advocate. "We were sitting around the office one afternoon, and all of a sudden I noticed we were getting all this traffic from MSNBC, and we were kind of baffled," Galant said. "We were just speechless. It's just like, one of these moments where you never think that's going to happen." Because, in the age of rapid-fire fact-checking thanks to a quick Google search, something like that just isn't supposed to occur.

Within a few hours, of course, MSNBC had corrected its error. Just as with the Mooninite incident, the most extensive coverage came from snarky bloggers taking shots at gullible mainstream media.

But on the other hand, even if the rapid spread of information on the Web has meant that legitimate mass hysteria and major misconceptions are restricted to niche interest groups or metro areas (say, Boston) rather than entire countries, the sociological reverberations remain the same. Both The War of the Worlds radio announcement and the Mooninite scare, for example, have deep roots in paranoia over national security.

"In the late '30s, at the very time when that War of the Worlds thing played, we were constantly listening to our radios and hearing 'We interrupt this program with breaking news,'" Thompson said. "And it would be bad news, as the prelude to the Second World War was going on. Orson Welles used that idiom of radio talk, that interrupting the message or dangerous talk that we were not only completely used to, but used to taking very seriously."

And then there's the possibility of (figurative) planetary alignment: if governments and major media outlets promote something as truth, the populace both online and offline will likely follow suit.

Thompson raised the well-documented Y2K paranoia as an example of such. Despite extensive corporate and government measures put into place to specifically make sure the world's technological backbone didn't collapse on January 1, there was still anxiety over an impending technological meltdown in the last few days of 1999. "That was probably one of the great War of the Worlds types of moments because it stretched over a long period of time and then, of course, nothing happened," Thompson said. "If you went as far as to get some cash from the cash machine a couple of days before New Year's, that's a sign that this story did enough to alter behavior."