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5 September 2018updated 09 Jun 2022 5:34pm

From Martian invasions to Andrew Marr in Bodyguard, we are most credulous when reality feels unreal

If you imagine an online equivalent to Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds in 2018, there’s no reason to feel smug.

By Dorian Lynskey

Fans of non-actors struggling to convincingly portray their actual selves will have enjoyed Andrew Marr’s uncanny-valley appearance on Jed Mercurio’s new BBC drama Bodyguard. Yet because everything’s a problem now, the decades-old trick of using a real journalist in a fictional story has become contentious. Marr was moved to write an article rebutting the argument that “in an age of ‘fake news’, any blurring of the boundaries is inherently dangerous”. Likewise, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s cameo in Mission: Impossible – Fallout caused angst among US journalists. “We’ve lost credibility in a lot of ways,” Columbia journalism professor Duy Linh Tu told Vanity Fair. “Do we want to do anything that further compromises that?”

The objection seems to be that having real newsmen talk about made-up terrorism could undermine their credibility. As far as I can tell, nobody is claiming that the sight of a familiar face could jolt anybody into mistaking one of these flamboyantly implausible thrillers for a documentary. Then again, stranger things have happened.

This October marks the 80th anniversary of the Orson Welles radio version of HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds. Welles, just 23 and tingling with brilliance, didn’t mean to conduct a vast experiment in the psychology of fake news. He took care to avoid the mistake made by the 1926 BBC radio play Broadcasting from the Barricades. When Father Ronald Knox, one of the BBC’s regular announcers, appeared in his usual slot to “report” that a rampaging Bolshevik mob had lynched a government minister, thousands of listeners were understandably upset. It was the equivalent of Mercurio scripting an edition of the Today programme for a lark.

Welles’s drama, on the other hand, used actors, and no fewer than four announcements throughout the show explaining that it was just a bit of Halloween fun. Also, it was about Martians. Nonetheless, a significant number of listeners were terrified.

The myth of widespread panic has since been debunked. It arose from hyperbolic reports in newspapers, eager to take a jab at the medium that was leeching their advertising dollars, and from The Invasion From Mars, a book by Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril that wildly overestimated the number who were affected.

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Still, the interviews that Cantril’s team conducted were real. Some listeners did jam the kids into the car and drive like crazy. Some did make tearful farewell phone calls to loved ones. A radio announcer in Cleveland who assured listeners that it was just a play was accused of “covering up the truth”.

Cantril may have bungled the numbers but his findings still feel relevant. Welles replicated the tone of news radio, and if it sounded real, some thought, then it must be real. (Similar confusion was caused by the BBC’s 1992 Halloween hoax Ghostwatch, anchored by Michael Parkinson. Parky wouldn’t pull our legs, would he? Not Parky.)

Most listeners who missed the announcements were either naturally sceptical (again, Martians) or checked the story by switching to another station. One reason some didn’t was confirmation bias. Ten years into the Great Depression, and just weeks after the Munich agreement, many Americans expected the worst. The most poignant comment came from a Jewish woman: “I realised right away that it was something that was affecting everybody, not only the Jews, and I felt relieved. As long as everybody was going to die, it was better.”

In his review of Cantril’s book, George Orwell related the panic to the rise of Hitler: “The evident connection between personal unhappiness and readiness to believe the incredible is its most interesting discovery.”

Cantril concluded his book by calling for greater media literacy. Eighty years later, he’d be sorely disappointed. The ease with which seemingly sensible people fulminate over obviously doctored tweets or jokes from the Onion, or share palpably absurd “news” stories with their Facebook friends, proves how naturally credulous we are. Facebook’s greatest gift to fake news was its decision to make links from all news sources look the same, so that RealWorldTruthNews.com appeared no less authoritative than the New York Times.

Talking earlier this year about Reddit users’ willingness to promote Russian disinformation, the platform’s co-founder Steve Huffman said: “I believe the biggest risk we face as Americans is our own ability to discern reality from nonsense.” In 1938, the magazine Editor & Publisher warned of radio: “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove that it is competent to perform the news job.” Different medium, same problem.

If you imagine an online equivalent to Welles’s broadcast in 2018, there’s no reason to feel smug. There would be conspiracy theories, attacks on “MSM” (mainstream media) cover-ups, #InvasionfromMars truthers, a migraine-inducing Infowars video, and doubtless a twist of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The War of the Worlds was persuasive because there was so much trust in the media (or at least radio) that fiction could be mistaken for fact. The argument against Marr and Blitzer’s thespian adventures is that there is now so little trust that fact could be dismissed as fiction. Yet the psychology of credulity is much the same: the lack of critical thinking, the victory of anxiety over logic, the susceptibility to certain audio-visual cues, the sense of living in a time so full of fear and uncertainty that nothing is completely implausible. As Welles inadvertently demonstrated, fake news flourishes when reality feels unreal.

Our new weekly Digital Dispatches column will feature Sarah Ditum, Ian Leslie, Amelia Tait and Dorian Lynskey

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This article appears in the 05 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left