People in the United States were “praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death,” according to public opinion scholar Hadley Cantril. The year was 1938, and Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds,” a fictional story of a Martian invasion, was being broadcast by CBS Radio, reaching an audience of millions. What followed, so the story goes, was a mass panic across the country. The listeners who tuned in following the start of the program missed the introduction which provided context for the broadcast, and some believed that a Martian invasion was really taking place. But how many?
Today, the alarm raised by politicians, researchers, and technology companies of all stripes about what they view as an epidemic of fake news on social media platforms echoes the concerns raised about “War of the Worlds.” Facebook recently launched a project in collaboration with five outside entities, including news organizations, to fact-check the news reports that appear on its platform and verify their accuracy. The problem of fake news even made an appearance in President Obama’s farewell address on January 10, 2017.