Media manipulation at work
Media manipulation seems to have been used since the discovery of radio…
31th of October 1938 was a special Halloween for a lot of Americans. In the evening, a radio show with Spanish music was paused by breaking news that announced some unusual explosions on Mars. Then, the musical program continued.
Later on, the musical program was stopped again, this time by a live transmission from Grover’s Mill, a small town in New Jersey, where a “Huge cylinder” hit the Earth with “a terrible force”. It’s estimated that about one million Americans were listening to the radio show. Their curiosity was slowly replaced by fear when the scared reporter described how the end of the cylinder began to screw off, and a terrible gnashing could be heard on the radio. Then, the reporter announced that some huge shiny creatures, with long tentacles and snake-eyes, got out of the cylinder.
As the live transmission continued, the panic arose. Terrified, the reporters transmitted that this “avant-garde of Mars invaders” began the conquering of New Jersey, killing anyone that tried to resist, and marching towards the middle of New York.
The population was then asked to evacuate certain areas.
Hundreds of thousands of people left their homes, rushed into their cars and fled, trying to escape from the Martian invasion.
What really happened?
Every year, in the Halloween night, Americans dress up as monsters, ghosts, vampires and other scary creatures. This celebration comes from an old Celtic tradition, that was meant to please the spirits of the dead, and spread in The United States, Canada, and British territories, as a pretext of carnival and fun. Orson Wells, who was going to become one of the most famous American actors and directors, adapted for the Halloween the novel “War of the worlds” by H.G. Wells, and realistically played it along with his colleagues from the Mercury Theater. The sound of the screwing off cylinder was created by opening a jar in the WC basin.
We should keep in mind that this happened in 1938, before the television era, when the radio was the only source of news, music, theater, and entertainment. More so, the play perfectly imitated live transmissions. Orson Welles chose the beginning time right before the end of a popular radio show on other radio station. He knew that most of the listeners would wait for the end of that program and only then would commute to his show. The result of this trick was that most of the listeners missed the beginning of the show, when an announcer came on the air and clearly said, “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.”
The way panic spread that night is now a classic case-study in social psychology. Hearing those terrifying live transmissions, the listeners tried to figure out how other listeners behaved. As all the others were also worried and frightened, any doubt vanished. “We kissed each other and waited to die in every moment”, remembered a listener of the show.
A lot of people looked for correspondences between that they listened on the radio and the close reality. They unconsciously interpreted their observations to that the reality fit the live transmission. “We looked through the window and the Wyoming Avenue was full of cars. I realized that people tried to run away, to save themselves…” said a listener. Another witness remembers, “There was no car on my street. I thought that the roads were blocked by traffic jams, as many streets must have been destroyed by the invaders.”.
In social psychology, this phenomenon is called “Contagion”, because emotions and behaviors spread on the population as an epidemic disease. Every time an individual finds himself in a confusing situation, he looks at the way others react and imitates them. Unfortunately, in confusing situations, the others don’t know more than him.
Because of the contagion media manipulation generated, the mass-psychosis reached epic proportions.
The effects of “The War of Worlds” radio show reveals how powerful and sometimes, how dangerous the media can be when they are used for manipulative purposes. Few people were skeptical and tried to find out more on other radio stations. They didn’t find any news, so they called their friends and relatives, but no one knew more. The only source of information was the radio station that transmitted live. This increased their confusion, which proves that having only one source of information maximizes the manipulation’s effects.
If you have no other alternative, the influence of a unique source of information is much more powerful. During the Romanian so-called “Revolution” in 1989, the national television was the only source of information. No one could verify then if those 60.000 corpses really existed. The national television served a lot of crap to the Romanians in 1989. Military trained “Terrorists” that fought for Nicolae Ceaușescu and were able to shoot from any position, the poisoning of water sources, all these announcements were impossible to be proven or verified. Manipulators used television to induce a mass-psychosis that was meant to prepare and justify the following course of action.
For those that organized the Romanian fake revolution in 1989, the national television represented the main tool. Without media manipulation, they couldn’t have controlled the population.
Mass-psychosis is a highly spectacular effect of media manipulation and the examples above are eloquent enough to show this, but media manipulation isn’t always so obvious, even in later studies.
Smoke screens used to distract public attention from unwanted topics, systematic persuasion and influencing in electoral fights, perverse advertising campaigns, are just a few of the dirty uses of media manipulation.
The more we study media manipulation, the easier it will be for us to detect it and the less vulnerable we will be.