In 1938 a young media upstart named Orson Welles produced a special radio program for Halloween adapted from H.G. Wells’ novel “War of the Worlds.”
The broadcast, done in a news format, caused widespread panic as many listeners thought the country was actually being invaded by Martians.
At the time, “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” series in which the program aired had few listeners. But historians said news of the program spread by word of mouth after it began and many started to tune in, missing the disclaimer that it was a fictional entertainment program.
Some historians think the “widespread panic” was exaggerated by newspaper coverage at the time. However, there were many people who still believed the event was happening even after more disclaimers were aired during the program because the network was flooded with calls during the show. Some thought the disclaimers were just a government coverup to prevent panic in the streets as the Army battled the Martians.
The event was an example of how irrational rumors can sometimes become more believable than the rational truth. Some people seemed ready to accept that the Earth was being invaded by Martians rather than the explanation that it was a radio show.
Casa Grande recently had its own War of the Worlds moment.
Last week numerous state troopers along with their vehicles converged on an undeveloped Casa Grande subdivision for a training exercise. The gathering resulted in a lot of speculation on social media by those who passed by the event.
Some of the Facebook and Twitter posts included:
“I was wondering if they found a shallow grave or something.”
“I saw someone mention a pursuit ending in the area 4 hours ago.”
“A man told me they found a body out there.”
“I keep kinda wondering if they found a body in the water that’s always sitting out there.”
Then we started getting calls from people wondering what was going on. Reporter Heather Smathers contacted the Casa Grande Police Department and was told it was just Arizona Department of Public Safety training. So we posted that and began telling people that when they called in.
You would think that would end the speculation, but it didn’t.
Some people trusted the rumors more than the explanation. One caller told me it couldn’t be training because he saw the wing of an airplane, so it must be a plane crash.
“What kind of training are they doing? What are they training for? I’ve lived here seven years and never seen the PD train like that...,” one poster said.
A healthy skepticism of government and institutions is sometimes necessary in a democracy. But lately things have gotten out of hand when it comes to social media. It has become easier and easier to tear down the institutions that have made our society great simply by doubting logical explanations and instead promoting far-fetched speculation.
It is one of the reasons our country is so divided these days.
Still, it is encouraging that not everyone took the speculation over the DPS training seriously.
“They’re preparing grand forces to repel the North Korea invasion,” one person added to the thread.
Another picked up on the space alien theme: “E.T. came home.”
Orson Welles would have been proud.
Andy Howell is assistant managing editor of Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc. and PincalCentral. He can be reached at ahowell@pinalcentral or 520-423-8614.