In 1938, actor Orson Welles directed and narrated an episode for the radio anthology series “The Mercury Theatre on the Air.” This particular episode, broadcast on Halloween, was “The War of the Worlds,” based on the novel by H.G. Wells. “The War of the Worlds” is about an alien invasion, and when folks turned on the broadcast, some of them missed the message that this was a fictional story. Urban legend says that panic spread, and this event went down in history for the hysteria it caused, even if it wasn’t on the grand order that some people say it was.
Last summer, for a couple of days, my friends on Facebook were sharing an article claiming “Orange Is the New Black” had been canceled. Sharers of the article were crying in outrage, demanding to know why such a popular show’s plug had been pulled. Well, it hadn’t. The article actually was from the satirical news website “Empire News.” This hoax was so successful “Time” magazine published an article on its website on July 13, 2014 declaring that the show really had not been canceled.
This misunderstanding could be brushed off as an isolated incident, like “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. But then in January, I saw that many people were posting a certain status on Facebook. This status said that Facebook was going to install software that would steal personal information from its users, so if you didn’t want your information to be stolen, you needed to copy and paste (not share) the status that denied them the right. I saw so many people post this status that for a couple of hours it seemed to be the only thing on my news feed. And again, it was a hoax.
Think back to when you heard a celebrity had died, but then it was revealed to be a hoax. Now remember the last time you had to explain to someone that “The Onion” is not a real news site.
There was a simpler time when everyone was in the know that “The National Enquirer” was not a reliable source for factual news. However, for every troll who makes a fake status on Facebook or every satirical news site that talks about something relative in pop culture or every Photoshopped picture of the president posted, there is someone who takes it at face value and has a knee jerk reaction to it. This bothers me.
It bothers me because it is the equivalent to someone sourcing “The National Enquirer” in one of his or her arguments. But mostly it bothers me because in 1938, the people who panicked during Welles’ broadcast had an excuse. Their main source of instant information came from the radio. There wasn’t a way to Google whether aliens were actually attacking. There were no 24-hour news outlets or online publications posting articles. But we in 2015 do have all of those resources.
We have a device, whether a tablet, a phone or a computer, that we can potentially access and obtain any kind of information we want. Depending on the device, we can get that information whenever and wherever we want.
These resources are at our fingertips, but we do not utilize them properly. It also is not just the common, everyday person who will fall for this. It is damaging to a news site or publication’s credibility when it shares false news as true, but it is damaging to a person’s credibility as well. If you want to debate politics with me, that’s fine, but if you shared that article from the “Daily Currant” website about Obama creating a new American flag, then most likely, your credibility has been damaged in my eyes.
It may not seem like a big deal in the examples I’ve given, but I can’t help wondering what would happen if something on a more dramatic level were shared at the rate these other examples were. It isn’t too difficult to imagine the aforementioned “War of the Worlds” broadcast could be replicated. So to prevent that from happening, be sure to question what you see online.
The time it takes you to copy and paste that Facebook status or share that article is the same amount of time you could spend googling and verifying the information. If you’re not sure where to look, Snopes.com is a good first resource. The website is dedicated to verifying stories that may or may not be true, and it busts anything from celebrity rumors, new laws, Photoshopped images or social media hoaxes.
The world has grown smaller since the birth of the Internet. And as always, we have to be careful what we share online. This goes beyond just name and age now, to the information we choose to share as well. Most of us can recall a time where we have been duped by a hoax, but we can become more informed and better users of the Web if we take the time to use the resources that we are so lucky to have.