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A lesson from radio history when Martians invaded Earth

The invaders from Mars, reported live on CBS Radio as it was unfolding, landed some time after 8pm on Sunday, October 30, 1938.

At first, it was thought that it was a meteor that had crashed, pulling crowds of onlookers at the crash site on a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey, in the United States.


The rapt listeners by their radios across the US could hear the commotion of the crowds, including a witness account from the owner of the farma. It was soon established what this was all about.


The reporter at the crash site described a Martian emerging from a large metallic cylinder, estimated to be about 30 yards (27.4 metres) long.


“Good heavens,” he said in disbelief, “something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather.

“But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

This was just the beginning. What followed, to borrow one description, the Martians mounted walking war machines and fired “heat-ray” weapons at the puny humans gathered around the crash site.

They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman, and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon “Martian cylinders” landed in Chicago and St. Louis.

This is a well-known hoax dramatised for radio. It was adopted from the then-popular book, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Broadcast at primetime that October Sunday, it was so realistically executed that, many who tuned in late to catch its introduction, believed there was a deadly attack going on.

On one street in Newark, New Jersey, it was reported more than 20 families fled their homes with wet cloths over their faces, believing they were victims of a Martian poison gas raid. Terrified citizens across America flooded police stations with calls asking how they could protect themselves.

In 1938, radio was people’s only real-time news source and, until the nationwide panic the drama caused, the power of the medium could not have been conceived.

The New York Times cautioned the CBS Radio network. “Radio is new,” the paper said, “but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

There other media hoaxes preceding this one, such as in 1835 when the New York Sun regaled its readers with a series of stories out of this world to increase its circulation, which it did selling over 19,000 copies from 8,000. (See, “The True History of Fake News” at The Economist 1843 Magazine website)

It is different now and media houses have a reputation to maintain. While there have been professional media bodies and government oversight to guarantee trustworthiness and put a check on mainstream media houses out to manipulate their audience, it is another matter with the internet and social media.

Click an interesting headline and you may end up on a fake-news site, set up by a political propagandist or a teenager in Macedonia to attract traffic and generate advertising revenue.

Peddlers of fake stories have no reputation to maintain and no incentive to stay honest; they are only interested in the clicks.

This week a number of research findings on fake news were reported affirming a trend. One finding related to the coronavirus and reported on BBC with the headline, “Social media users more likely to believe conspiracies”.

Another reported in Forbes and elsewhere showed how “for six years, [Russian-linked] disinformation specialists have been spreading fake stories and forged documents across all manner of social media and Web forums, all with the aim of sowing distrust and swaying elections across European and North American nations.”

Among the findings in the just-released Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 was one captured in a Daily Nation headline that reads, “Politicians top source of false reports”.

The 1938 CBS Radio drama epitomised a hazard of its time. In our time it is the internet, of which the Reuters report notes global concerns about misinformation remain high.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in thisarticle are of the author.

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