War of the Worlds Redux: The Danger of Believing Everything You Read
When Orson Welles narrated the infamous faux alien attack from H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" on the CBS radio network in 1938, people went berserk. Although this was done as part of a dramatic series—based on a novel that had been written 40 years before—people nonetheless misinterpreted it as a factual news bulletin. The result was a call for tighter FCC regulations and a barrage from media professionals accusing Welles and the show's production team of being dangerously misleading and diminishing the credibility of mainstream media by exploiting people's fears.
Recently, Ahmad al-Mahmoud, an Iraqi living in London who runs a Twitter account with the handle @IraqSurveys—typically focused on disseminating factual news related to Iraq—managed to generate an uproarious response similar in some ways to Welles' narration. On a whim, al-Mahmoud decided to generate and report a fake battle being fought between ISIS and Iraqi coalition forces. He used a fake location and generated digitally altered photographs and maps to support the fiction. According to the BBC, "The name of the place [of the battle], Shichwa, is actually a joke—it's Iraqi Arabic for 'cheese bladder,' a traditional method of making dairy products." The whole thing was harmless, al Mahmoud thought.
But as we've seen repeatedly in recent years, everything, including things as ostensibly innocuous as photos, status updates, and blog posts written by complete unknowns can be dragged into the spotlight very suddenly and without warning.
Pro-Shia Twitter accounts discovered al-Mahmoud's account and began celebrating their fictional victory. (Never fact-check if it might compromise political expendiency.) Naturally, pro-ISIS social media accounts caught wind of it, too. What began as something of a harmless prank evolved quickly. The pro-ISIS accounts began promising revenge for their supposed loss in the fictional battle. (Yep, ISIS doesn't fact-check, either.)
It's impossible to say if this seemingly innocuous prank will have a real-world impact, but it does illuminate the power of social media as a tool for dissiminating information and, clearly, disinformation.
The juxtaposition between Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast and al-Mahmoud's Twitter "war" is telling. Welles insisted his broadcast was never more than satire. Al-Mahmoud has echoed this sentiment. Much of the opposition to both their work has come predominately from established publishing sources that emphasize/d how readers and viewers can't trust alternate forms of media (radio in the '30s, social media today).
I don't agree with the notion that social media is an inferior way to collate information, in fact, I get much of my world news from social media accounts (albeit linked to established journalists and those in the intelligence community) and I don't believe traditional media outlets are the be-all end-all of news. That said, this most recent example of "news, confused" should remind us to remain skeptical, now more than ever, of the information we're exposed to. As the lines between journalist and citizen have blurred with the proliferation of technology, so too has the line between fact and fiction.
(Featured image courtesy of masslive.com)