By Spandana Singh
On October 30, 1937, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network aired The War of the Worlds as a Halloween episode of the Mercury Theatre on the Air radio drama series. The episode was an adaptation of the 1898 novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and detailed an alien invasion of Earth. Although broadcast radio at the time featured numerous dramatized and fictitious episodes, the incorporation of news style bulletins and announcements into the War of the Worlds broadcast caused listeners to believe it was real and sparked widespread confusion and panic.
One of the most interesting insights that resulted from the War of the Worlds broadcast is the relationship the public had with radio broadcast, as a form of media responsible for spreading information. The American people were furious with the CBS radio network for not consistently clarifying that the story was fictitious (broadcasters made an announcement at the very beginning of the broadcast, but late-tuners missed this) and called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which at the time was primarily concerned with the types of content being disseminated, to revisit broadcast radio and content regulations.
Public reaction to the broadcast demonstrated how reliant they were on technologies and outlets, such as broadcast radio and the rapidly growing newspaper industry, for information. In addition, public reaction highlighted how these outlets were perceived as reliable sources of true, verified and expert information, which is why the broadcast was so antithetical to the norm.
Now, fast forward to the present day, where the rise of the Internet and user-generated content have transformed the news and media landscape significantly. The information production landscape is no longer based on the top-down model that governed much of the 20th century, but rather a multidirectional model that empowers and enables everyone to write, share, tweet, post and disseminate information and ideas. With this empowerment, however, comes risks, such as the emergence of the concept of “fake news” and concerns regarding journalistic and media outlet integrity. Although several initiatives, such as Facebook’s Related Articles feature and Jigsaw and Duke Reporters’ Lab Share the Fact feature have been established to combat the rise of fake news and verify information, users have to seek these solutions out based on their own volition, and must be willing to commit the time and energy to identifying verified information for themselves.
When CBS aired War of the Worlds, the resulting public outrage fell on the FCC and the media outlets to regulate and clarify their content. But in today’s age, where content is no longer produced solely by outlets and where trust in institutions—including the media and the government—is faltering, where should the onus to vet and clarify content fall? Did platforms that facilitate user-generated content—such as Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook—skip a step by neglecting to educate their users on content guidelines and standards amidst the rush to enable content creation, or was it simply unimaginable that the spread of false information could ever grow to be so impactful?
Today, fake news is a highly-politicized term; it is a barrier to truly combating misinformation. Policymakers need to accept the existence of such falsified information (after all, “fake news” has actually been around since 1475) and enshrine lessons on how to identify and combat it in both the education and professional systems. Only then can the public begin rebuilding their trust in institutions and in themselves, and can we avoid #AlienInvasion becoming the next trending topic.
Spandana Singh is an Intern on the East West Institute's Global Cooperation in Cyberspace team. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in International Development and Media, with a focus on technology. She previously served as a Public Policy Fellow at Twitter in San Francisco and is also currently a Millennial Public Policy Fellow on the Open Technology Institute team at New America.