Seventy-five years ago today, Martian invaders landed in Grovers Mill, N.J., marched death machines across the Hudson River and destroyed much of New York City. Or so many people thought as they listened to Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The reasons this story – and the subsequent media reports of it — gained such traction may offer insights into contemporary media obsessions and the misunderstandings they can cause.

When Speed Trumps Accuracy

This past summer, stories of a bizarre fad in Japan raced around the globe. Lovers would reportedly lick each other’s eyes as an act of intimacy. The story was carried by news sources as varied as the Huffington Post, The Guardian and CBS News. “Japanese ‘eyeball licking’ trend carries blindness risk” proclaimed the CBS News headline. Apparently, however, almost none of this was true. But that didn’t prevent news sources from rapidly replicating the story.

Hardly a month passes without an erroneous rumor about the death of a celebrity racing across Twitter and other social media platforms. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, members of website Reddit sought to trump traditional media by using the power of Internet crowd sourcing to identify the suspected culprits. Sadly, this effort went horribly awry.

A recent study of 7.9 million tweets from 3.7 million unique users following the bomb blasts found that 29% of the most viral content on Twitter consisted of rumors and fake content, 51% contained generic opinions and comments, with only the remainder containing accurate information. The study also found that a “large number of users with high social reputation and verified accounts were responsible for spreading the fake content.”

In an Internet economy that thrives on site traffic and the spread of links through social media, speed frequently trumps accuracy. It’s often more important to be first than to be right. While social media platforms give us access to more information, more rapidly than at any other time in history, our bewilderment about how to interpret this information fuels these rampant misunderstandings.

This confusion over new media is not a recent phenomenon, however.

At 8 p.m. EST on Sunday October 30, 1938 — the night before Halloween – the Columbia Broadcasting System presented Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air in a dramatization of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Cast in the form of news bulletins interrupting the live performance of what purported to be “the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra,” the radio drama recounted the arrival of terrible Martian death machines that marched from their landing site in Grovers Mill, N.J., to decimate much of the East Coast before ultimately being stopped by the Martian’s lack of immunity to earthly microorganisms.

In an Internet economy that thrives on site traffic and the spread of links through social media, speed frequently trumps accuracy.

The next day, the media was abuzz with reports of the mayhem caused by the radio play. “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” ran the headline in The New York Times on October 31. “Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid From Mars’ — Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells Fantasy” claimed the subhead. In a companion piece, the Times declared: “Scare Is Nationwide: Broadcast Spreads Fear In New England, the South and West.” The New York Daily News announced: “Fake ‘War’ On Radio Spreads Panic Over U.S.” These articles and many others around the country were filled with colorful tales of people leaving their homes in a frenzy to alert their neighbors and seek safety.

Although the news stories of a vast, nationwide panic may have been exaggerated (more on this later), a large number of people apparently believed the broadcast described actual events occurring in real time. First-hand accounts indicate that many people were taken in by the hoax and were concerned for their safety in light of the terror unfolding over the radio or relayed from second- (or third-) hand accounts from neighbors.

In addition, the public’s credibility was fueled by the perilous state of the world at the time.

‘A General Air of Fear and Panic’

In late 1938, Europe was on the precipice of war. Troubling radio bulletins were not uncommon, with reports on the deteriorating situation in Europe often interrupting regular broadcasts. Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg disaster a year and half earlier graphically demonstrated the new medium’s ability to capture horrible events in real time.

In an interview for the Museum of Broadcasting, Mercury Theatre producer John Houseman explained: “With [the Munich crisis] just over, there was a general air of fear and panic and a feeling of doom, and a sense that war, international war, was inevitable. So people were pretty well primed for this latest catastrophe.”

The Mercury Theatre’s flawless recreation of the style of these news reports boosted the broadcast’s credibility. There were no commercials throughout the drama to reinforce its fictional nature. Furthermore, some listeners missed the disclaimer at the opening of the performance. In a Harper’s Magazine piece in 1948, Houseman noted that the Mercury Theatre had roughly a 3.6% audience share while the competing Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy radio program had 34.7%. At around 8:12, the ventriloquist act gave the airwaves over to a singer, and many in the audience channel surfed to the CBS program as the realistic-sounding news bulletins began to grow more urgent.

We increasingly rely on new social platforms for instantaneous news and information, and newspapers and television are responding by trying to beat these new platforms at their own game.

Although the stories of the nationwide panic have long been taken at face value, in Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, W. Joseph Campbell argues that reports of a nationwide mass hysteria were gross exaggerations.

While Campbell concedes “the program did frighten some Americans, and some others reacted in less than rational ways,” he believes “most listeners … recognized the program for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.” Campbell says the newspaper accounts “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.” While they “captured the individual-level fright that circulated that night,” the newspaper reports were unfounded in concluding widespread panic.

The proliferation of the stories of panic may have been more than just sloppy journalism, however.

Media Envy

Campbell suggests that newspapers pounced on the tales of radio’s misinformation because of tension between traditional print media and the upstart radio broadcasting.

Radio had largely eclipsed the papers in covering up-to-date reports of the unfolding Munich crisis. “For weeks, the American people had been hanging on their radios, getting most of their news no longer from the press, but over the air,” Houseman wrote in the 1948 Harper’s article.

Campbell sees in the reaction of the print media the desire to rebuke their new rival. “American newspapers thus had incentives to denounce radio and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable,” Campbell writes. “Many newspapers seized the chance to do so with enthusiasm. It was an opportunity they could not let pass.”

Campbell cites an editorial in the trade journal Editor and Publisher warning that “the nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove, even to itself, that it is competent to perform the news job.” And this from the Cincinnati Enquirer: “At best, radio is a confusing medium of information. It lacks the means of check-back and confirmation so readily available on the printed page.” The Hartford Courant warned readers of “believing wild rumors for which the only authority is ‘I heard it over the radio.'”

“We can have thrust upon us a false picture of reality as distorting as the trick mirrors in a Coney Island funhouse.” –Howard E. Koch

These complaints would not be unfamiliar to those who are skeptical of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit as news sources.

When a new medium emerges, it’s not surprising that we misunderstand how it works. And it’s natural that the established media, feeling the pressure of the upstart platforms, may run amuck in response.

Seventy-five years ago, there was a perfect confluence for media madness: unsettling world events, a new reliance on an emerging medium and an overreaction from the established news sources.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

We, too, live in troubled times. The 21st century, ushered in by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has witnessed a parade of unnerving events that would have once seemed inconceivable. We increasingly rely on new social platforms for instantaneous news and information, and newspapers and television are responding by trying to beat these new platforms at their own game.

Fears of an alien invasion can serve as a proxy for domestic terrorist anxieties as much as for the outbreak of war in Europe. And, indeed, a recent radio campaign promoting a format change at Alabama radio station Star 94.9 that portrayed aliens hacking into the station’s broadcast signal apparently caused concern among some listeners. The Florence, Ala., Times Daily reports that the promotion “led to rumors that area schools would be bombed.”

According to the website All Alabama, Brian Rickman, program director for Shoals Radio Group, the company that owns the station, stated: “We came up with what we thought was a really fun storyline [which] would be that these aliens or star people were hacking into the radio station. The concept being that they heard our frequency several light years away, they didn’t like Justin Bieber and the pop music we were playing, and they were going to take over the radio station and adjust the format. We thought it was clever.”

While this is radio — hardly a new or unfamiliar medium — the furor was stoked by more recent entrants onto the media scene. The Times Daily quotes Tuscumbia Police Chief Tony Logan as saying that “It’s part of a promotional [campaign] that made it to social media, and it went viral from there on Twitter and Facebook. It may have started as something innocent, but it has gotten out of hand and turned into an issue concerning public safety.”

In an interview the day after the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds broadcast, a chastened Welles was apologetic, stating his surprise (whether real or feigned) that many took the drama seriously. He also noted, “Radio is new, and we are learning about the effect it has on people.”

More than three decades after the broadcast, the author of the Mercury Theatre’s dramatization, playwright Howard E. Koch, reflected on the impact of radio and its electronic successor television: “Never had there been such an opportunity for the dissemination of knowledge…. But the obverse is also true. We can have thrust upon us a false picture of reality as distorting as the trick mirrors in a Coney Island funhouse.” Koch concluded: “If the nonexistent Martian in the broadcast had anything important to teach us, I believe it is the virtue of doubting and testing everything that comes to us over the airwaves and on the printed page.” Or, one might add, over the Internet.

This perspective on the evolution of modern media misinformation was written by Kendall Whitehouse, Knowledge at Wharton’s technology and media editor.