The Fake-News Fallacy

from The New Yorker

On the evening of October 30, 1938, a seventy-six-year-old millworker in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, named Bill Dock heard something terrifying on the radio. Aliens had landed just down the road, a newscaster announced, and were rampaging through the countryside. Dock grabbed his double-barrelled shotgun and went out into the night, prepared to face down the invaders. But, after investigating, as a newspaper later reported, he “didn’t see anybody he thought needed shooting.” In fact, he’d been duped by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” Structured as a breaking-news report that detailed the invasion in real time, the broadcast adhered faithfully to the conventions of news radio, complete with elaborate sound effects and impersonations of government officials, with only a few brief warnings through the program that it was fiction.

The next day, newspapers were full of stories like Dock’s. “Thirty men and women rushed into the West 123rd Street police station,” ready to evacuate, according to the Times. Two people suffered heart attacks from shock, the Washington Post reported. One caller from Pittsburgh claimed that he had barely prevented his wife from taking her own life by swallowing poison. The panic was the biggest story for weeks; a photograph of Bill Dock and his shotgun, taken the next day, by a Daily News reporter, went “the 1930s equivalent of viral,” A. Brad Schwartz writes in his recent history, “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.”

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One Response to The Fake-News Fallacy

  1. Meghan Healy September 15, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    Fake news has been a sad reality for decades. Whether it be an alien report from October of 1938 or the discontinuation of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from September of this year, fake news has persisted. These false stories have been present since the 1930’s when the radio was made popular. Almost 80 years later, we are still questioning the accuracy of the information that is given to us over various media outlets. In 2017, fake news has varied from the closure of Walt Disney World, to CNN staging a Hurricane Harvey rescue video, to the death of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. While some of these stories can be viewed as innocent gossip, others resemble manipulation into forming opinions in favor of a political agenda.

    Almost anything can be viewed as fake news. As described in the beginning of the article, even the so-called mass hysteria caused by the fake alien invasion news in 1938 was exaggerated. The alleged outbreak of delirium was fabricated by the newspapers to show that the radio could be reckless. As a result, people would start questioning what could be believed by these radio stations. Similarly, the media has us questioning what is real and what is fake with every article they produce.

    The article discusses the belief that Americans were dim-witted. This idea was sparked when intelligence tests on World War I soldiers revealed “discouraging news about the capacities of the Average American.” During the War of the Worlds hysteria, listeners who believed the story were considered “idiotic” and “stupid”. The story was possibly produced to specifically reach the audience that would believe the lies. Current news outlets probably possess the same idea of citizens being dim-witted. That is why they feed us these stories – they possess they notion that we are dumb enough to believe them.

    The article also mentions Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to spew lies to help his presidential campaign. Multiple fake news stories came out that supported Trump and gave the appearance that he was gaining unbelievable supporters, such as Pope Francis. If people saw that the Pope – the head of the Roman Catholic Church – could be pro-Trump, they might then become pro-Trump as well. In the radio’s earlier days, it wanted to create a more democratic society. They created programs that resembled a forum to promote political engagement and diversity. The radio aimed to create active, rational, tolerant listeners that would make ideal citizens of a democratic society. In a way, news is a form of manipulation. The media shares certain stories in hopes of influencing the public’s opinions of a certain subject. The idea of fake news probably started with propaganda. Certain groups or organizations wanted people to lean a certain way or support a certain idea. They would put out advertisements that would influence people to think a certain way about a topic. This is similar to the alleged story of the Pope supporting Trump. One could see the headline ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’ and send it to their friends so they could either panic or celebrate together. Social media has made it easier for these stories to be spread, and for greater mass hysteria to be created. These stories can be shared with friends in a matter of seconds. The acceleration of these fake news stories will soon be even more detrimental to our society.

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