Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Responsible Information Handling - Radio Drama Causes Panic in the '30s

Would you believe that back in the '30s, thousands of people panicked when they thought we were being attacked by Marsians - and all that was because of a radio drama?
The radio drama entitled "The War of the Worlds" was adopted from H.G. Wells' novel with the same title. Basically, it was about aliens - Marsians, to be specific - landing on Earth and attacking people. (Listen to the radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" - linked from Mercury Theatre)

If you listened closely to the hour-long drama, you would know that it was just a drama - there was a sort of introduction at the beginning. So how did it cause thousands of Americans to run out of their houses in a frenzy, thinking that we were under attack by Marsians?

Based on the descriptions I read from various sources, one factor that might have contributed to the immediate panicked response was the timing of the broadcast. It was broadcasted in the 1930s, during World  War II. Under such circumstances, people would definitely be more prone to panicking.

The next factor, which you might have noticed while you listened, was the cleverly-staged delivery of the "news". The drama was designed to make listeners believe that they were listening to usual music programs with breaking news in between. The tense atmosphere portrayed in the drama probably induced a false sense of urgency and "reality" to the broadcast. If I were to listen to it today, I would say it was absurd, or maybe even stupid, because who would believe that there were actually aliens? But during that time, the people easily believed what was being said on the radio because the radio held a high authority over information dissemination. There was no other source of information apart from the radio and newspapers.

Finally, and the most important factor that I wanted to stress, was the way the listeners handled the information. Now, it was made clear throughout the broadcast that it was just a drama but the people who panicked apparently did not tune in early enough or long enough to hear that. Instead, they jumped to the conclusion that an invasion was actually taking place. Without even verifying the authenticity of the "news", they just got up and went into a frenzied panic. Across the United States, phones in radio and police stations were flooded with calls from hysterical citizens. Many even fled their homes.

So what should we learn from this event? While the broadcaster of the drama is responsible for the "information" that they deliver, we, as the receivers of that information, also have a responsibility to handle it, well, responsibly. A fair warning: do not immediately believe everything presented to you.

We are now in the so-called "Information Age", an age where anyone and everyone has the information - and the means of sharing it. Over the years, different forms of information media have been made available to us with the help of technology.

On the Internet alone, you can be overwhelmed by the insane amount of information you can get with just one click. There is freedom of sharing and practically anyone can be an information resource on the Internet. Compared to the reach of the radio back in the 30s, the Internet reaches much, much farther and wider.

If a radio broadcast was able to stir up such an unexpectedly large-scale panic, what would an Internet fallacy be able to do? Think about it.

This is where responsible information handling comes in. We do not have absolute control over the information being shared not only on the Internet, but on other forms of information media as well. However, it is our responsibility as the receivers of this information to check and verify whether this information should be believed in or not.

When we are presented with information, we do not embrace it immediately with open arms. Confirm the source of that information and verify it with other sources, as well. We have all the resources, so we must use them wisely and responsibly.

With the abundance of information and the means of sharing it available today, there's bound to be someone who might just get an idea, spark another believable controversy, and make use of the available information media to cause another panic - and this time, the effects could be world-wide.

So the next time you are fed information, chew it, but think twice about swallowing it.

Inspiration from: With Great Technology, Comes Great Responsibility

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