Remember War of the Worlds? No, not the 2005 Tom Cruise blockbuster. I’m talking about the radio broadcast version from 1938. Well, it’s a lot like the recent viral article about Facebook charging a $2.99 monthly membership fee.
In case you’ve never heard it, here’s a quick overview: In 1938, the "Mercury Theatre on the Air" radio show aired a 1-hour program based on the book War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Mercury was lagging behind the most popular program at the time, a show named the "Chase and Sanborn Hour," and were looking for some sensationalism to increase their listenership. In the program, Martians attack Earth, which is witnessed by several reporters who relay a play-by-play account of the invasion.
Although the station aired several disclaimers throughout the show, specifically stating that it was not real, many listeners never heard them, and panic ensued: “All across the United States, listeners reacted. Thousands of people called radio stations, police and newspapers. Many in the New England area loaded up their cars and fled their homes. In other areas, people went to churches to pray. People improvised gas masks. Miscarriages and early births were reported. Deaths, too, were reported but never confirmed. Many people were hysterical. They thought the end was near.”
Yesterday it Was Radio, Today it’s the Internet
While you might find it silly that so many people were duped by the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the truth is that we’re all fooled (some of us admittedly more so than others) at one point or another. Often times, the ruse can spread across hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of individuals. But instead of this occurring over the radio, today it almost always happens over the internet. And when something goes viral, the resulting traffic (e.g. the amount of visitors to the site) can cause an huge surge in popularity, as well as in ad revenue.
Did You Hear the One About Facebook Charging $2.99?
If you’re a Facebook user, you’ve almost certainly heard that the popular social networking site will begin charging a $2.99 fee for monthly membership beginning November 1, 2014. Perhaps this news made you mad. Perhaps you’ve been telling your friends that this would happen for years, and you finally felt vindicated. Maybe you were indifferent. However you felt though, here’s the important thing: it’s fake.
Yes, that’s right; completely fake.
The story was originally posted by National Report (which then came down), a “fake news” or “satire” website similar to The Onion. Since its posting on September 22, 2014 (a little over one day before this article was written), the website has generated an immense amount of buzz, both on and off Facebook.
Do you feel duped? Don’t, and here’s why.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Although it’s a bit dated, a 1997 Nielsen study reported that “79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.” In other words, we don’t read entire articles that we come across online. Instead, we scan the article’s text looking for things like highlighted words, meaningful sub-headings, bulleted lists, media such as images and videos, and so forth.
Fake news websites like National Report purposely employ these types of writing skills to draw readers in, engage them, and leave them feeling more informed. However, unlike some of the more outlandish articles on the rest of the site, the Facebook To Begin Charging Users $2.99/mo Starting November 1st article wasn’t clearly fabricated. In fact, unless you clicked around to learn more about the website, the article didn’t contain anything that would have raised a red flag.
So if you come across something like this in the future, what should you do?
A Lesson in Due Diligence
Even though we tend to scan online articles instead of reading every word, and although satire news websites like National Report can make their articles appear very convincing, you can avoid being duped. How?
First, don’t jump to conclusions. After all, even in legitimate news articles, there are always two sides to every story.
Second, do your research. In the case of this Facebook article, it’s as simple as clicking on their home page, where just under “Sign Up” it reads, “It’s free and always will be.”
After all, whether it’s 1938 or 2014, it can be difficult to discern entertainment from reality, especially if we get too worked up to notice the disclaimers.