Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Something in the Water

Whether by luck or design, the IRA’s [Internet Research Agency, nothing to do with Ireland, for you old people]  campaign against America worked, and is still working. An examination of Twitter’s new dump of Russian troll data this month shows that the IRA’s tactics worked far better in the U.S. than in Russia or the Eastern European nations where the troll farm cut its teeth. English-language tweets by the IRA’s sockpuppet accounts enjoyed nine times the engagement than tweets in Russian and other languages. And, remarkably, Americans fell for the Russian interference even harder after the 2016 presidential election than before.

What does this tell us about American culture?  Well, for one thing:  disiniformation, you're soaking in it:

It's been 80 years since Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' radio broadcast terrified the nation

'War of the Worlds' radio broadcast sparked fear, panic 80 years ago in America, Orlando

'Alien Invasion' Radio Broadcast Terrified Listeners 80 Years Ago. Would E.T. Contact Cause Panic Today?

The widespread panic didn't actually happen, and those articles do try to say maybe there wasn't a panic, in a sort of "some people say" kind of way (or, as Paul Krugman once put it:  "Is the earth flat?  Opinions differ.").  Start with the first link above, read along, and you get this, finally:

Popular myth detailed people flooding out of their homes in a panic, but several theories have emerged in recent years suggesting that no widespread panic occurred -- especially since most people probably were listening to the comedy variety show, "Chase and Sanborn Hour," which aired at the same time, the Telegraph reported.

"Theories" is the key word there. This narrative begins to sound almost sacred, inviolable. I'm beginning to think I'm discussing bIblical interpretation who finds my dismisses my historical approach as merely a theory.  And that's after the article has said:

People likely didn't hear much of the broadcast, instead focusing in on the urgent-sounding news bulletins that cut in, experts told ABC News in 1988, on the 50th anniversary of the radio drama.

"People were vulnerable in 1938, and they were worried about the war, worried about the economy and perhaps were a little bit upset and nervous because it was Halloween," Dr. Joel Cooper, psychology professor at Princeton University, told ABC News in 1988.

Ah, yes, the insights of a psychiatrist 50 years later.  Journalism!  But the article is about the panic; the disclaimer that, well, maybe there was no panic at all, is buried so deep and is so slight, it barely registers except as:  "Opinions differ."

The Orlando article details the mass panic, but then abruptly ends on a very local note (hooray for brave newspaper editors!):

Orlando Sentinel publisher Martin Anderson, writing in a front-page column days after the broadcast, noted, “The Radio Hoax proves many things, including the philosophical statement of the cynic who declared one should never underestimate dumbness of the public. An yet, intelligent people have told us they were really scared to death; that they, somehow had missed the announcement explaining the broadcast was only a fabrication of Mr. H.G. Wells’ mind.”
So, you know, maybe it really happened.  Who can say?

Live Science, the third headline above, just goes with the common history, though you'd think a website upholding science would know better:

"Thousands of listeners rushed from their homes in New York and New Jersey, many with towels across their faces to protect themselves from the 'gas' which the invader was supposed to be spewing forth," the Daily News reported the next day. 

Yeah, that didn't happen:

In the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, analysts in Princeton’s Office of Radio Research, working under the direction of Professor Hadley Cantril, sought to verify a rumour that several people had been treated for shock at St Michael’s Hospital in Newark, NJ after the programme. The rumour was found to be false. In addition, when they surveyed six New York City hospitals in December 1938, they found that “none of them had any record of any cases brought in specifically on account of the broadcast”. A Washington Post claim that a man died of a heart attack brought on by listening to the programme was never verified. Police records for New Jersey did show an increase in calls on the night of the show. However, in the preface to his textbook Introduction to Collective Behaviour, academic David Miller points out that: "Some people called to find out where they could go to donate blood. Some callers were simply angry that such a realistic show was allowed on the air, while others called CBS to congratulate Mercury Theatre for the exciting Halloween programme". 

Where did this come from?  Newspapers, actually,  Real, honest to God "fake news."  With a real agenda:  the dangers of radio.

The newspapers had a clear agenda. An editorial in The New York Times, headlined In the Terror by Radio, was used to censure the relatively new medium of radio, which was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising. "Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses,” said the editorial leader comment on November 1 1938. In an excellent piece in Slate magazine in 2013, Jefferson Pooley (associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College) and Michael J Socolow (associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine) looked at the continuing popularity of the myth of mass panic and they took to task NPR's Radiolab programme about the incident and the Radiolab assertion that “The United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we’ve never seen before.” Pooley and Socolow wrote: "How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’s programme, perhaps to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalised the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted."
Panic works best when it is exploited by those who would benefit from it; something we still seem to have yet learned in America.  Remember when the "gangs" were "looting" in New Orleans after Katrina?  The "rape gangs" in the SuperDome, the "predators" allegedly controlling life there?  People trying to leave the city were blocked by panicked sheriff's deputies, afraid the contagion of chaos would spread.  But there was no chaos, no decay of social order, no terror.  It was largely racism that fueled that fear, and the fear served white people well (who, as the AP famously said, were getting needed food from a flooded store that black people were "looting.").

The habit of reporting the panic and then slightly denying its veracity is one that the press hasn't gotten out of.  In 2012 PBS did a documentary on the panic, which noted:

“Ultimately,” Oliver Platt intones, “the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press.”

Again, the subjunctive: "would come to be seen." The narrative must be handled with all due reverence. Here it hardly outweighs the entire documentary about the fake panic that precedes that statement.  Indeed, this is a more accurate picture of what happened on the eve of Hallowe'en in 1938:

While newspapers made Oct. 30, 1938, a memorable night in the history of the United States, in reality it was a normal fall Sunday evening throughout North America. Four days after its initial, sensational report, the Washington Post published a letter from one reader who walked down F Street during the broadcast. He noticed “nothing approximating mass hysteria.” “In many stores radios were going, yet I observed nothing whatsoever of the absurd supposed ‘terror of the populace.’ There was none,” the reader reported. The Chicago Tribune made no mention of frightened mobs taking to the Windy City’s streets.
But the urban legend of panic persists.  MarketPlace used it this morning to discuss the 80th anniversary (plus one day) of the original broadcast (was I really born only 17 years later?  It seemed like an age earlier when I was young, now it seems like a mere lifetime today.  Even 80 years doesn't seem that long a span anymore.)  The broadcast is famous for the panic, not for the quality of the presentation (it's actually a far better than any movie adaptation of Welles' story).  The persistent myth of the panic is an object lesson in the durability of urban legends, but also in our national complicity in perpetuating conspiracy theories and fake tales of history.  It's not unlike the stories of poisoned candy, or apples with razor blades; stories you only hear this time of year.  What purpose do they serve, except to make sure every household buys packaged candy rather than make homemade treats (as if anyone would do that anymore anyway)?.  Or maybe it just helps us mistrust our neighbors, and trust the authority of the media. There's just the fact that we seem, ultimately, to fear our neighbors; why else would we expect them to turn on us once the power went off or the streets were flooded?  Our connections are through a set of shared ideals, not a common bond of blood or even history.  Who is to say our neighbors, when the chips are down, are as trustworthy as we are?

“Poland, Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, they know Russia’s coming after them,” said Ryan Fox, a former NSA official now serving as COO of the smear-fighting startup New Knowledge. “They’ve been culturally trained to recognize Russia as a threat, so the skepticism of people in that region is pretty high... The U.S. was a far better environment for it to succeed.”

We think we have no enemies, because of our natural borders, and our neighbors are Canada and Mexico.  But we also fear the enemy who is us, and that makes us easy prey not only for fake panics, but for conspiracy theories about Jews and immigrants who are going to take away what we have.  What was the Russian invasion of social media, if not that?

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