October 6, 2022

On Sunday, October 30, 1938, thousands of radio listeners heard terrifying news: aliens had invaded New Jersey. 

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From a New York Daily News article, October 31, 1938:

A radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” which thousands of people misunderstood as a news broadcast of a current catastrophe in New Jersey created almost unbelievable scenes of terror in New York, New Jersey, the South and as far west as San Francisco between 8 and 9 o’clock last night.  

Ridiculous, you say.  Why would people believe that aliens had invaded?  They believed because it was news.  Orson Welles’s adaptation of the War of the Worlds novel used familiar, trusted devices to report the fictional attack — news bulletins, updates from live reporters on the ground.  He used actual government positions like New Jersey governor and secretary of interior and physical locations like Trenton, Mercer, and Princeton.  These positions and locations were all too familiar to those listening to the “news” updates — confirmation that the reports were real. 

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Still, does hearing it on the news make it any less impossible?  Apparently, because thousands were convinced right up until they switched channels or heard the retraction.  But what would have happened if War of the Worlds had been on every channel, reported by all news outlets?  What if there’d never been a retraction?  Wouldn’t millions have believed the impossible?

These lessons were not lost on power brokers around the world.  In the U.S. today, eight billionaires control our once free press, while their oligarch allies monopolize social media.  Their messages are not only uniform across all channels, but often repeated word for word.  And because it’s every mainstream media channel, because nearly every social media site backs it up, fake news is the order of the day — fabricated stories, nonexistent sources, blatant propaganda presented as fact. 

So how could these information power brokers use this imperium?  Could the “news,” say, take a story made from whole cloth, total fiction, and make it real, use it to damage and possibly remove a sitting president?  They could, and they did. 

For more than two years, media hammered the story that Trump and Vladimir Putin are best buds who conspired to rig the 2016 election.  Reporters interviewed experts, former and current government officials, to cloak the story in realism.  The DOJ even assigned a special prosecutor to investigate the crime.  It was clear: Trump and Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton.

Except not only were the charges false, but the whole thing was just a fairy tale, a fantastical story brought to life by media.  Eventually, the special prosecutor cleared Trump, and it’s since been established that Hillary Clinton’s campaign conjured up the scandal.  Yet how many Americans still believe the Russian hoax?

Could media use their superpower to, say, push for a civil war?  Could they sound the alarm of an enemy within plotting to riot, to overthrow the government?  They could, and they did.  They can, and they are.