According to Dictionary.com, the term mass hysteria means “a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behavior or beliefs.” Unwittingly Orson Welles caused mass hysteria on October 30, 1938 with his radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” a science fiction novel by H.G. Wells. In this age before television, the Sunday evening 8 o’clock time slot was prime time and millions of Americans listened in. At the time Welles was only 23 and known as the voice of the popular mystery program “The Shadow.” He feared his “blunder” would end his career.
That evening, the program went from a weather report, to orchestra music from the Hotel Park Plaza, to “breaking news.” An announcer informed the listeners of an explosion on the planet Mars. Then, more music before another “breaking report” of a meteor crashing into a farmer’s field in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey. Soon a reporter was at the crash site describing Martians emerging from a large metallic cylinder. He said, “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another…” The Martians mounted walking war machines and fired “heat-ray” weapons at defenseless people gathered there. It got worse. The invaders destroyed 7000 National Guardsman and released a poisonous gas.
The radio show was so realistic panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, chaos ensued as people jammed highways trying to escape the alien attackers. Civilians begged police for gas masks and asked power companies to shut off power to prevent Martians from seeing their lights on. A woman barged into a church during evening services and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world!”
That was then, but what about now? Surely, no one would be fooled into believing something without checking out the facts. Wrong. With the persuasion and influence of the internet, fake news and conspiracy theories are rampant today and there seems to be no end in sight. It has divided this country into those who believe anything they read if it aligns with their values and the more pragmatic folks not so easily swayed. The invasion of made-up stories and outright lies has made our country weaker and our government dysfunctional. It is like a cancer with no cure if rationality and sound reasoning are dismissed.
How bad could it be? Go back to December 2016. A North Carolina man traveled to a pizza restaurant in Washington DC with an AR-15 assault rifle and fired shots inside. He told the police he came to investigate a conspiracy story he believed to be true about Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief running a child sex ring from the restaurant. The made-up story became known as Pizzagate.
But it gets worse. Three days ago, eleven people were shot up and killed with an AR-15 when a man entered a synagogue and proclaimed, “All these Jews must die.” Why? Because this man with mental issues believed a story about Jews, specifically a philanthropist who funds liberal causes, providing financial support to a caravan of immigrants making their way to the US border. The irony of this conspiracy theory is the act does not benefit Democrats for the midterm elections. Instead, it feeds on the fears of the far-right, worried about the invasion of immigrants. To fan the flames further, political leaders are spreading more claims not based on facts: the desperate people fleeing violent gangs are embedded with MS-13 gang members and are carrying diseases.
Fear sells. Fear has power. Fear feeds off the unknown. Fear breeds hate. It is a symptom of xenophobia. People rationalize their fears by saying the story may not be true, but it could be true. That rationale does not hold water. It is weaker than decaffeinated coffee. Let’s be responsible citizens and check facts and not spread lies. Your mama taught you better, didn’t she? How about it? Feel free to comment.
Research provided by: History.com: “Welles scares nation”