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Magda Skrzypek
Media development worker

Prague-based media development worker from Poland with a journalistic background. Previously worked on digital issues in Brussels. Piqs about digital issues, digital rights, data protection, new trends in journalism and anything else that grabs my attention.

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piqer: Magda Skrzypek
Sunday, 02 December 2018

Orson Welles' 1938 Radio Program Holds Lessons For Today's Fake News Debate

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News," panicked announcer broke in on Halloween 1938, just one year before the Second World War started. That's when Orson Welles' radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” tricked some CBS' listeners to believe that Martians were invading New Jersey.

To mark the 80th anniversary of one of the most famous (or infamous) programs in radio history, WNYC's science-themed show "Radio Lab" brought back their very first live hour, fully dedicated to the "The War of the Worlds." Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, took a deep dive to show how the radio drama managed to strike fear into some of its listeners, but as we learn, many of those feeling terrified thought it was Nazi Germany just making it look like an interstellar war. We also find out that the radio drama was replicated at least three times.

Apart from being a valuable historical account, the podcast also reveals the terrifying power of media persuasion that still holds true today: dis- and misinformation often aim at luring the audience in. "The War of the Worlds (...) was so good at grabbing an audience and sucking them in, that the Welles formula, you might call it, the newscast that scares you enough to keep you listening has been adopted by, of all folks, news companies (...) Even if the headline is slightly preposterous, even if it is slightly scary, even if it is slightly false, we will listen," Robert Krulwich said in the episode.

Interestingly, the aftermath of "The War of the Worlds" also bears similarities to today’s social media regulation debate. In 1938, despite an outcry against the radio broadcasters from the public, the Federal Communications Commission didn't promulgate any official regulations and instead relied solely on an assurance that fictional news won't be aired again. Sounds familiar, right?

Orson Welles' 1938 Radio Program Holds Lessons For Today's Fake News Debate
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