Aliens are invading. Do you believe that? Probably not at face value. You are too informed, a byproduct of the information age of today. What would it take for this message to influence you? Would it persuade you if the message is delivered by a trusted source, for example, a radio in the 1930’s, which at the time was societies the only connection to the outside. The radio would be your only reference to reality. A human truth is that if you do something long enough, you will enjoy it, so the radio was everyone’s trusted source quickly. By then the convincing would have already been done, and the agenda would have been set.
Communication is a process, so The War of the Worlds was just a result. It sets the stage, gently nudging you to observe your surroundings and make your own inferences. Choosing a topic to bring attention to and helping determine the position for at expense of all other topics (Dearing 1996). But different communication processes have been evolving for as long as we can remember. Those who have conquered the rhetorical approach to communication, have dominated the narrative and how we interact with the world (Hanson 2020). They have defined our experience to the point where media has become a weapon that uses attention to affect change. Those who set the agenda decide what the masses should or should not be able to hear, and unfortunately, it’s not always a good thing. That is how the moral and ethical debate about information and hegemony’s have formed, through divisions in class based on the control of information. Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power.
Communication in modern day media has the power to be twisted, construed, and morphed into something entirely new, and not in the justified sense of historicism or inspiration. Social media and technology have altered the process of communication in the way every previous wave of technological enhancements has before its antecessor. The communication process has taken a new form, “as social media platforms, mobile devices, and artificial intelligence gain more sophistication they will challenge our silos and push us toward a more integrated approach of understanding—for example, issues surrounding privacy credibility and developing interpersonal relationships” (Dearing 1996). It’s a good thing that the technological ease of communication has enabled for an even playing field, but just because we all have a voice doesn’t mean we all should.
The age of smartphones and social media means our words reach millions instantly, but not all with the same conviction as The War of the Worlds. It as an event only heard by thousands (Pooley 2013) but affected millions. It struck like a hypodermic needle and caused two-step flow of communication, transferring information from those who heard the initial broadcast to their friends.
We’ve come a long way from The War of the Worlds, but it seems our problems have only taken on a new form. We used to only communicate through signs, art, and dance, so texting is an improvement, but our problems remain, matter of fact, they have multiplied. With the power of instant mass communication come the detriments of its misuse. In the medieval ages, miscommunication came from being unable to understand people over their chainmail armor and bushy beards. Information published in early newspapers were often riddled with unsubstantiated facts and used unflattering language or misinformation (Quintero 2015).
At the beginning of the The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, the broadcaster announced that it was a performance by The Mercury Theatre company in partnership with Orson Welles. That set the stage for what would be an exhilarating audio event. Unfortunately, this introduction went unheard for most Americans, and the result was the most terrifying display of miscommunication the masses has ever seen. Reports of mass hysteria and panic ensued, and it went down in history as one of the earliest and most magnificent examples of miscommunication. If you missed the introduction, you probably thought the apocalypse was upon us.
Communication is a process, not a static thing (Hanson 2020). The word itself, the emotion behind it, how it’s received, and where it’s said can all imply a different meaning. This is communication in a nutshell: sender, message, channel, and receiver. We talk and we listen. But it is how we talk and listen that is crucial. Context to a message, no inflection in a voice, or no location for a conversation, then the interpretation of meaning is skewed. The truth is hidden in the silence noise in between our words and actions. The channel, medium, location, comprehension, and semantics are all crucial elements of the message, because context encompasses all of it.
I used to always think that if something walks like duck, sounds like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. But now I’m not so sure. It could just as easily be a virtual reality penguin that in the right lighting and with enough alcohol convinces me to be a duck. Media can be stripped of all its original quality and turned into something entirely different. Deep fakes, audio analysis, computer graphics, and video editing can lead to a manufactured experience that is so believable that it might as well be real.
That’s why context is so important. It is the difference between Welles’ broadcast being a play or reality. It is the difference between President Biden mumbling for an entire press conference or just for a couple of sentences. Taking a message out of context is particularly powerful because the ability to form entirely different stories and narratives allows for the hypodermic needle theory to prevail. A passive audience can be even more gullible if they are presented falsehoods as facts. There is more to work with if you can just create whatever message, you can bend the truth. Simply cutting a couple of words of a message can lead to a new interpretation. If you remove the “If you hurt the ones I love,” and just publicize the “I will kill you,” the message is entirely different.
In America, the only responsibility we have is to ourselves. What we determine our values to be will determine what we hold ourselves accountable for. Our laws help to guide us to the greater common social good, but that is not always the case. The line between good and evil is easily blurred, so instead of living in black and white, we travel in grey. We say our privacy is crucial, but we sign it away in waives daily. It is clear we don’t always have our best interests at heart. We kill ourselves with sugar and food oil, we mortgage our homes for pharmaceuticals, and we value social validation more than self-betterment, so it’s unimaginable to think we would live in a world where people aren’t trying to convince us of something.
A testament to the age of disinformation is that various newspapers reported The War of the Worlds in different ways. Many sensationalized American’s response as causing mass panic leading to suicides, exoduses, and arson, but others said barely anyone listened in (Pooley 2013). Research by Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow determined there to be a significantly lesser affect from the broadcast than has been reported through history. Turns out that the broadcast was airing at a competing timeslot of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show (Pooley 2013). How ironic that in the reporting of a massive hoax, it’s hard to find the truth.
Dearing, James W. (1996) Agenda-Setting. SAGE Publications.
Hanson, Ralph E. (2020). Mass Communication: Living in a Media World. SAGE Publications.
Stacks, D. W., Salwen, M. B., & Eichhorn, K. C. (Eds.). (2009). An integrated approach to communication theory and research.
Pooley, J., & Socolow, Michael J. (2013) The Myth of The War of the Worlds Panic. Slate Magazine.
Quintero, Marlon. (2015) Innovation for Media Content Creation: Tools and Strategies for Delivering Successful Content.