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Donkin's World: The Martians Are Coming...

Richard Donkin considers the effects of rumours and mass hysteria.

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Watching the Andy Murray match on TV I heard someone from the crowd shout: "Come on Nadal." Someone else shouted "Come on Henman." It perplexed the commentators. What was going on?

Later,the story of Michael Jackson's death broke on the celebrity website TMZ. Other news stations took time to verify his death and produced some balanced reporting. http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/celebrity/michael-jackson-dies-in-shockingly-normal-fashion-200906261856/ It's important to do so today because all kinds of hoaxes are spread around the web.

Before the night had ended there were reports that actors Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford had also died. Goldblum was supposed to have fallen off a cliff while filming in New Zealand. Funnily enough this was how Tom Hanks was reported to have died in 2006 as the Snopes website revealed. http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/hoaxes/cliffdeath.asp

Why do people start such rumours? I suppose that some find starting a story that is spread by millions intoxicating, instilling a sense of power - a bit like kicking off a Mexican wave.

The hoaxers may think of these stories as harmless but it wouldn't have been a joke if you were a relative of Goldblum or Hanks and you saw their death being reported on the news wires (yes, some stations did put out the rumour without checking).

The power of the viral is worrying. On its own, in a single medium, I don't think it's enough to cause mayhem. But imagine a situation if a dangerous rumour was co-ordinated across the various media.

In 1938, when people relied for their news on radio and newspapers, Orson Welles broadcast a version of H.G Wells' War of the Worlds that relied on realistic radio bulletins of a Martian invasion for dramatic effect. While the scale of the ensuing panic is debated today http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(radio) if you imagine tuning in to the broadcast at about 2 minutes 30 seconds onwards (no need to imagine, try it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wf5TPVz56A), you can see how some people may have allowed their anxieties to get the better of them, triggering hysteria.

The broadcast caused outrage because it betrayed a sense of trust people had placed in the broadcast media. It demonstrates why the BBC, of all stations, must take scrupulous care with its bulletins. It wields extraordinary power of influence that it cannot afford to abuse.

Mass hysteria is a strange phenomenon which I have experienced just once in my life - after hearing of the death of Princess Diana. I felt a real sense of grief on the day of her funeral, yet I only saw her once and never met her, and afterwards felt embarrassed by my emotions, almost in denial as intellectually they were simply illogical, but I know they were real.

Many years ago I interviewed a Ukrainian man who had been in the German army on the Russian front during World War II. As the war ended, he and his comrades deserted their trenches under protection of a barrage and headed west as fast as they could in order to surrender either to the British or the Americans. Coming out of a wood, someone shouted "the Russians are coming." One man put a gun to his head and shot himself, such was the fear of being taken. But the Russians didn't come. It had been a cry of panic.

What would make us panic today? Reports of a dirty bomb over a city? Co-ordinated bulletins about an impending asteroid collision? The swine flu reports probably caused undue anxiety and yet the threat was real and remains so. Suppose the media could have launched a Tsunami warning ahead of the Boxing Day 2004 disaster that killed 230,000 people? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake The earthquake occurred several hours before the wave struck most coasts. Would people have heeded warnings?

The more hoaxes we experience, the more cynical we are likely to become. That's fine until a real emergency comes along. In the meantime, if you happen to be in Wimbledon watching Andy Murray next match and the chap next to you shouts: "Come on Henman," just give him a slap and tell him not to be so silly. It's the only way.


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