It’s the most famous hoax of all. In 1938, a radio drama of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds was broadcast over CBS news radio, one of the most popular radio stations at the time. Performed in the style of ‘breaking news’ radio casts, the country went into a panic, thinking the country was truly under attack. All in under one hour.

Few panics have come close to this widespread panic and all of these required extended amounts of time. The most notable and most recent panic occurred with the May 21, 2011 Judgement Day Prediction.

World Awaiting War

In October of 1938, US citizens clung to their radios, awaiting the latest news on the rising power, the Nazis, in Europe. Americans tuned-in to the news every night and listened raptly. Even amongst the Great Depression, the poorest relied on radio for news.(Source) The First World War still fresh on their minds, the general population feared the possibility of an invasion.

World Awaiting Judgement

In 2011, the Mayan Calendar and ‘2012 doomsday’ flooded every Facebook post, and amid this ‘end-of-the-world’ hype, Harold Camping, a Christian extremist, advertised his predictions of the Return of Jesus Christ. While many modern Americans tend to dismiss or ignore the doomsday preachers, Camping used the donations of followers to launch a nation-wide advertising campaign, including billboards, newspaper articles, and extensive social media use.

While no immediate panic arose from this campaign, the continuous coverage and advertising caused paranoia in the most skeptical of Christians and full-blown panic among Evangelicals. (And I’ll admit, my palms were quite clammy on the day of May 21st, 2011).

Why Were We Fooled?

While Orsen Welles’ innovative radio adaptation of War of the Worlds was meant to play on the fears of his audience, it played too well on the population’s fear of war. Simulating the ‘breaking-news’ format of regular radio programming, listeners who tuned in later into the broadcast and missed the disclaimer of the program’s fictionality, assumed that the actors were actual reporters and the invasion was real. The broadcast had too few disclaimers (a total of 3, the middle most occurring approximately 40 min. into the program) and did not take into account the audiences sensitivity to invasion threats. Had this exact program been aired in modern times, individual fact checking through the internet would have stoppered the hysteria that occurred in 1938.

With technology and the increase of news skeptics, hoaxes like War of the Worlds are less likely to fool as many people in as quick of time. With the 21 May 2011 event, however, technology and skeptics fueled the hoax. Social Media allowed for the campaign to reach millions of Americans, while the infirmities of many peoples beliefs seeded paranoia. Due to the religious nature of this hoax, the only debunking required was to wait until the date passed. Had this hoax been more of a scientific nature, individual fact checking would have debunked Campings predictions much sooner.


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