Hive fever, responsibility, and ‘The War of the Worlds’ syndrome

The last couple of days have seen reports of the outbreak of swine fever in what the media are calling ‘the Americas.’ Initial reports have spawned comment and further reports which have then been retweeted, reblogged, and sent on their way. It’s not overstating the mark to say that in some cases the responses have caused panic in readers. Whilst the possibility of a global pandemic is frightening, the mass response via the interwebs has raised the issue of social networking’s capacity to misinform and cause disproportionate responses to the originating story.

It brings to mind Orson Welle’s famous live radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on October 30 1938. Welles and the Mercury Theatre‘s interpretation of H.G. Wells’ story of the invasion of earth by Martians, was a famous example of a play within a play; that night the supposed normal broadcast of dance music was interrupted several times by ‘breaking news’ of gas explosions on Mars and of hydrogen gas moving towards Earth. ‘Experts’ were interviewed, and eventually ‘our reporter in the field’ sent back the shocking news from a ‘field in New Jersey’ in a recognisable newscast format that indeed, aliens from Mars had invaded. What happened next is infamous in radio drama history.

About 12 million people across the US were listening to the broadcast that night, and approximately 1 million (according to the analysts) reacted in panic, while many fled their homes in a major freakout. You can hear the whole backstory of this prime example of mass hysteria in response to media via WNYC‘s Radio Lab. The podcast was broadcast last November live from St Paul Minnesota to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Welle’s radio drama. At the time the presenters asked ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Could it happen again?’ It’s a terrific, fascinating podcast. Check it out here where you can listen or download.

Now this was a drama … not ‘real’ but people thought it was. That’s drama’s power to stir the imagination. Radio Lab’s podcast analyses why people didn’t hear the introduction to the programme or stay around for the end where Welles declares it a spoof. The point I’m getting to is pondering the responsibility which accompanies the power to ignite the imagination, to ‘spread the word’ in credible media channels, to inform, and of course, misinform. That night in 1938 police switchboards were jammed, and transcripts of interviews with people at the time show the extent of their reaction: some thought they were being invaded by Germans, some ‘saw’ the Martians marching across the fields – many believed they were going to die … they panicked and many were injured!

PS Did you see the reaction yesterday from the plane that flew low over Manhattan? Of course you did! It’s been flying through the tweet stream.

And of course, I’m passing it on! Actually I think if I were a New Yorker I would have run too.

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