Pink Dog

Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, and the ‘panic’ that foretold fake news

Apologies for taking the best part of a century to report this news. But this from October 30, 1938 is rather good. (In my defence, I was not yet born for a good chunk of that near century).

Quite how much of a panic the original broadcast of Orson Welles’s adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds really caused has been a matter of some controversy – not only over how many people panicked but also whether those who did really believed an alien attack was underway rather than something like a natural catastrophe caused by a meteor strike.

Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News is a good study of what really happened, and I also touch on the subject briefly in my history of polling, Polling UnPacked: the History, Uses and Abuses of Political Opinion Polls.

Broadcast Hysteria shows how some people were scared, but also how those suspicious or envious of the rise of radio also greatly exaggerated what happened, turning events into a piece of fake news to fit their own prejudices and agendas. Fake news before fake news, as it were.

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