It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...
derspatchel

the anatomy of a panic

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air program performed, as a Halloween special, a live radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds." Boy Genius Orson Welles, already known as an innovator on the New York stage, worked with writer Howard Koch to create a new form of radio drama for this tale: a "You Are There" style of storytelling, using the radio broadcast medium as the story device.

The story of Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey was presented as a series of news flashes interrupting "regular" programming -- in this case, a fictitious music show. As the Martian threat progresses in the story, with more cities falling victim to the alien menace, the nature of the newscasts grows more and more horrifying. The story ends with the famous and chilling scene of a news reporter on top of the CBS building in New York describing the cloud of Martian poison gas approaching him, closer, closer, until there's nothing but silence... and then one lone radio operator sending a CQ (an "is there anybody out there?" message) across the airwaves.

The program itself ends with Orson Welles, first in character as an astronomer, explaining that the Martians had suddenly died due to the Earth's germs and bacteria, and then out of character, explaining that the show was merely a "scary story" for Halloween. However, it was too late; the damage had already been done. Radio listeners had indeed gone into a panic, spreading the news and rumors to their neighbors and family; when the police showed up at Grover's Mill to help quell the crowds of panicked New Jersey residents showing up to view the apparent menace, their presence only helped perpetuate the illusion that aliens had indeed landed.

The fallout from this was, of course, bigger than the panic itself. The newspapers had a field day with the story, Welles and the CBS Network were decried as hoaxers, agitators, intentionally manufacturing a panic. Welles escaped criminal prosecution, but both he and CBS were censured and CBS vowed never to use fake news broadcasts as a storytelling device again. It was a very good lesson in panic propagation and crowd reaction to mass broadcasts of threats. While the US at the time wasn't cowering under the shadowy threat of invisible enemies such as "The Communists" during the Cold War or "The Terrorists" today, there were more than a few people who believed the attacks to be perpetrated by The Germans, whose actions were being eyed warily on both sides of the Atlantic.

Welles issued his own apology, claiming he had never intended to fool anybody, the show had at all times been nothing but a story, and that disclaimers to this effect had been given before, during, and after the dramatic presentation.

And that's true, but...

Most of the program's listeners had come in late. The popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had been performing on the Chase & Sanborn Hour, a program on NBC that started at the same time as the Mercury Theatre program. However, once Bergen's first skit ended and a dull musical number began, many listeners began turning the dial to hear what else was on. This was the time (roughly 12 minutes in) when Welles' program first broke the story from Grover's Mill. Not having heard the program introduction and disclaimer at the beginning of the show, it was very easy for listeners to assume that they were hearing a legitimate news break. The panic was initially spread by the show's listeners, but quickly propagated by those not listening (neighbors, family members, people who ran into the street, etc.) so the rest of the disclaimers weren't heard and heeded, either.

And while Welles publically claimed he had never intended to fool the public... he knew the structure of radio programs. He knew the Chase & Sanborn Hour usually finished its first skit about 12 minutes in. And if you had the chance, while creating a scary story, to capitalize on unsuspecting dial-changers innocently happening upon your program at around that time... wouldn't you start laying on the scares then? In later years, Welles would alternate between denying and mischieviously hinting at his purposefully making that decision (he had a habit of arbitrarily changing stories of his past to suit his needs) so his true intentions will never really be known. What is clear, however, is that he grossly underestimated the impact his production would have.

You've probably guessed where I'm heading here, what with Boston now the laughingstock of the country after yesterday's Mooninite bomb scare. Our state and local authorities, now with egg on their face after apparently overreacting to an electronic viral marketing campaign for a television program, are fuming and sputtering and accusing Turner Broadcasting, as well as the two local artists hired to install the LED pictures, of conducting a hoax. That they knowingly put up these advertisements (admittedly illegally-placed) with the intent of the devices being perceived as dangerous explosive devices. That instead of advertising a wacky cartoon show featuring anthropomorphic food and irritatingly profane moon creatures, they deliberately wanted to spread panic in Boston ("when in danger or in doubt, run in circles; scream and shout.")

Hogwash.

The ads had been in place for over three weeks, in highly visible spots around the city. At night, they glowed. People who saw the ads as intended had posted about them, taken pictures and put them online, and generally treated them benignly. "Some art school thing." (It'd have been "Some MIT hack thing" if they'd all appeared in the Building 7 atrium or atop the Dome.)

The MBTA worker at Sullivan Square who called in the threat did so when he spotted one of the devices from behind and yes, when confronted with what looks like a circuit board, wires and a battery, one could reasonably assume that such a thing may very well be a homemade bomb and one isn't exactly going to run up to it, pick it up, and see if it's ticking.

And the emergency response teams who arrived and, er, neutralized the device did exactly what they were supposed to do in a situation like this. When you've got an unknown thingy in a public place that may or may not be dangerous, you don't take chances. You treat it as a threat and neutralize it. So far, so good, right? Okay, now come the reports of similar devices in similar locations (on bridges, supports, etc.) around the city. You still don't take your chances with your unknown thingies because, again, they're still unknown.

Now the police kind of sussed things out once they A. determined no explosives were present in any of the devices (still, can't take any chances) and B. took one of the devices out of the sunlight and it began to glow. I say kind of because these guys aren't exactly Adult Swim's target demographic, so it took a while before someone on the force recognized the cartoon character. But they'd cordoned off the areas. They didn't display the devices outright. Meanwhile, the media is reporting "Unknown package exploded in Charlestown by bomb squad! More of the same popping up all over the city! The T suspends Red Line service! Mayor Menino urges citizens to stay calm! Governor Patrick to issue a statement shortly!"

Okay, who's gone and spread panic here?

There was legitimate worry, I know; in my office we were confused, perplexed, constantly reading newer and newer media dispatches, worrying about our commutes. I had to leave early for a doctor's appointment and did have some tiny doubts in my head that maybe Something Bad was gonna happen -- or at least I wasn't going to make my appointment on time.

But it took one picture of the police removing a device, posted around 3:30 pm, for the Internet onlookers to realize exactly what these things were. (Seriously, I'm amazed there weren't any physical bystanders near the Longfellow or elsewhere who got it right away.) Granted, these folks are younger and more savvy in the ways of pop culture than the policemen, so the things were treated lightly with much amusement and quick LJ icons.

The Powers That Be and those not around any local online community, meanwhile, still hadn't figured things out and were still panicking. Much like in 1938, once the news started spreading, those not "listening" didn't get the "all clear" immediately. And, granted, Turner Broadcasting took its own sweet time contacting the Boston authorities to say "Uh, guys, that's our stuff, it's harmless," but I'm betting that's partly because they were scrambling around Legal to figure out exactly what to do while covering their asses at the same time. (Still, that's an explanation, not an excuse.)

Once the "all clear" did begin propagating, our Elected Officials realized what they had reacted to, and realized that the curious goo dripping off their collective noses was, in fact, egg on their face. And as you can see, they were not amused. Irritated at the incredible expenditure of money spent on the day's emergency response ($750K and probably rising), annoyed that this harmless ad campaign had been conducted without permission (had permits been obtained, none of this would have happened) and embarrassed that none of the 9 other cities in which this campaign took place reacted this way, our authorities sputtered, fumed, and much like angry cats, puffed up to make themselves look Big.

Mayor Menino has called for the local artists who set these up to receive "5 years in jail for every device installed" (there were 38 in total. Do the math.) He has also accused Turner Broadcasting of "corporate greed" and invoked the Evil Horrible Specter of 9/11 over and over and over again. "When 9/11 hit," Menino mumbled, "that changed everything." (Well, as metahacker has so eloquently stated, it's time to change it back.)

Last night, the two artists who put up the devices under the employ of the advertising agency used by Turner Broadcasting (follow the trail!) were arrested and charged with violating Massachusetts General Law Chapter 266, section 102A1/2 (placing "...any hoax device or hoax substance with the intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or group of persons") as well as disorderly conduct.

Today, in the course of writing this, the two men were arraigned (where even the prosecution admitted the men were putting up advertising and did not intend to cause the aforementioned anxiety, unrest, fear, etc.) and then released on $2500 bail. They told reporters outside the courthouse they would only answer questions about hair ("They're performance artists," explained one's lawyer.) While it may seem quite presumptuous and cocky to fool around after one's arraignment (and upcoming trial), at least they're treating the coverage as the media circus it is.

Seventy years down the line, I'm sure the Mooninite Scare of 2007 will not be remembered with as much gravitas as the War Of The Worlds Scare of 1938, but it followed the same basic blueprint. Entertainment is mistaken for true danger; panic spreads via several channels, some of which learn of the mistake before others; authorities are red-faced and upset once the dust settles; and the perpetrators are flung all sorts of heinous charges, but are really only guilty of poor judgement and underestimating their performance's impact.

(Now comes the facetious part.) But of course the real issue, as all Americans know, is WHO DO WE BLAME? For we are never satisfied until we can finally point that finger of blame at someone so that the vilification can begin.

Well, let's play The Arbitrary Blame Game!
  • Turner is to blame for setting up a viral marketing campaign without permission, leading to suspicion and confusion, as well as not immediately notifying the authorities once the story broke.
  • The two artists are to blame for accepting the job offer to physically put the signs up.
  • The emergency response teams are not to blame, for they did exactly what they were supposed to do.
  • The media is to blame for helping spread the panic, or to even suggest that there was a Whole Lotta Panickin' Going On. They can't be blamed for not immediately finding online debunking, really, so they kept on doing what they do best. (Still looking for the footage of the FoxNews anchor continuing to call the signs "explosive devices" while the ticker underneath reads "COPS STATE: DEVICES NON-EXPLOSIVE")
  • The police are to blame for not immediately releasing their findings to the media, which may have let the "all clear" spread sooner.
  • The authorities are to blame for blowing the entire incident out of proportion and then trying to save face by loudly and shoutingly declaring they wanted to come down hard on the easiest guys to grab; i.e. the two artist guys.
  • The Internet is to blame for being the Internet.
  • Spatch is to blame for writing a super-long entry, even with numerous lj-cuts, when he really should have been doing something constructive.
  • And Orson Welles is to blame for annoying William Randolph Hearst and eventually growing corpulent and drunk, arguing with audio engineers over an ad for frozen peas.


Is that everybody? Do you have enough now for as much recrimination as you'd like? Excellent. L.H. Puttgrass signing off and heading for the tub.


tl;dr - hey where'd this mountain come from? there was only a molehill here yesterday
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