Technology + Education + New Media
The Media and Mass Hysteria
Imagine it is Halloween Eve, 1938, a Sunday evening. You have just finished eating dinner after a nice church service, and are settling into your favorite chair to listen to the radio. You enjoy a nice dinner then the family settles around the radio for some entertainment and to listen to the news. This is your only source of media other than the weekly newspaper. You dial through the channels and catch the tail end of a variety show, when that ends you go searching for something else. You choose a channel playing some soothing music. Your eyes are closed; you are lost in the music when suddenly the music is interrupted with a special bulletin reporting explosions on mars. What is this, something is not right so you stayed tuned even after the music returns. Soon there are more interruptions that go from bad to worse. The reports include an alien invasion, Poisonous Gas, Explosions, Death and Mayhem? Hard to believe, but if the radio is reporting it, then it must be true. After all, this has been your trusted source of news and information and has never let you down before.
Orson Welles adaptation of War of the Worlds for radio provides us with one of the first modern examples of media driven mass hysteria. Mr. Welles intentions were merely to entertain, but the production was misconstrued by thousands as being a real live broadcast of unfolding events. Many people were panic stricken. The radio station, police stations, and news outlets were inundated with phone calls from terrified listeners. The breadth and extent of the hysteria has been exaggerated over the years, but there is no doubt that this event was a real eye opener to the power of mass media.
The media of the time was mostly newspapers and radio. There was not a lot of information available to the public outside of those mediums. I do not believe that the radio station and Mr. Welles were taking advantage of the lack of media literacy of the people. I think that this was purely accidental, but they may have played it up after the fact for their own benefit. Initially, I think that their main goal was to capture as many listeners as possible and to entertain, not to cause wide-spread panic.
Could this happen today? I know that we all like to think that we are far too sophisticated to be duped like those poor naïve fools back in 1938, but the fact is that we are not. We are a product of our environments, we are so wrapped up in media today that we cannot possibly be unaffected by it. We are shaped and sculpted by the media that we consume, in mass quantities, on a daily basis. The question is not can this happen today, but how often does this happen today?
It would certainly take a lot more planning and man power than a simple radio broadcast. I believe that as a society we are more skeptical and probably a little savvier than our 1930’s counter-parts. But, are we really less susceptible to the power of media? I believe that answer is No. We are still just as gullible and malleable as we have ever been, possibly more so because of the sheer volume of media that we consume. Researchers, Psychologist, and advertisers are keenly aware of the power of the media. Billions of dollars every year are wagered on this power and the payoffs are enormous.
Individuals may scoff at the idea that people in this day and age would fall for such nonsense, but the proof is in the pudding. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around you. Our facebook walls are buried in viruses in the form of hoaxes that one person after another falls for on a daily basis. This happens despite the fact that they have been repeatedly warned about the hoaxes, and could easily use Google to verify or disprove the information. A few more recent stories that hit the media and internet then spread like wild fire before eventually being debunked include: The Balloon Boy and The Death of Osama Bin Laden.
We like to think that with all of our technology and sophisticated gadgetry we have made ourselves immune to the power of media to bamboozle us. We are far too cynical and well informed to ever be taken in. People will never believe things like Aliens landed in Roswell, Obama is secretly a Muslim bent on destroying America, Bigfoot was spotted in Kentucky last week, that 9/11 was in inside job, or that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Who would ever believe such things?
Whether we want to admit it or not the media still has tremendous power over people. It has great influence on our thinking and the choices that we make. I think the fact that we have become so dependent upon the media probably makes us more susceptible to the effects than at any other point in history. It is not happening in a grandiose fashion such as with the War of the Worlds hysteria. It is more subtle and pervasive manipulation of our perception, thoughts and beliefs.
It can and does happen today. We are still slaves to the media. We depend on it for everything from the weather to entertainment. If a story were to saturate enough of the media outlets it would be believed as true by most people. It would eventually be debunked, but probably no more quickly than the War of Worlds incident and with equal level of panic among the people.
The problem may not lie in the consumption of media so much as in the nature of human beings. Mass hysteria is not a new phenomenon that appeared with the advent of media. People have suffered from mass hysteria throughout the ages as seen in the Dancing Plauges of the 1500’s, and later in the Salem Witch Trials. The media just plays on the psychological aspects of our nature that are already in place. For all of our advances in science and technology we are no less prone to the influences of media or the grips of hysteria than we were in 1936.