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How to Cause Panic: Television, Social Media and Emergency Management


CBS “Sunday Morning” (best news show on television) produced “Casting a Skeptical Eye” on April 1, 2012 stating, “No fooling – it’s April 1st, which means we should be extra skeptical about everything today. But correspondent Mo Rocca says with technology letting mis-information and myths spread so quickly, being skeptical is good advice every day.”

Mr. Rocca goes on to discuss the “War of the Worlds” radio presentation in 1938 where producer Orson Welles documented the fictional but news-like landing of Martins landing in New Jersey, specifically Grovers Mill . People throughout the country went into a panic. Lots of them.

“Sunday Morning” also featured video of a man flying like a bird which was viewed 6.5 million times and accepted by many as real.

Mo then featured a discussion with the cast of Myth Busters who discussed the fact that video equals truth and if the video presents a seed of truth (i.e., an iPod charged by an onion) then suddenly people find excuses to believe it’s true.

Could “War of the Worlds” Happen Again?

I’ve been discussing doing television production the same way I do radio shows on a MacBook Pro with some microphones and a mixer. If I can create radio shows that equal those produced in a studio, then is it possible to do the same thing for television?

I’ve ran the numbers and talked to a lot of people and the answer is yes. I can create a green screen virtual set (think Sports Center) and add three cameras and a switcher plus decent lighting and sound for approximately $4,000 to $5,000 (not including a computer).

This means that I can go on the internet with a lifelike television production and buy footage (of anything that mimics a real event) from commercial outlets and create the television equivalent of Grover’s Mill all over again.

So what?

I believe that it’s possible to create massive panic through false and malicious television productions either during an emergency or as a stand-alone event.

For the record, I have administered the emergency media response to dozens of major events and I have several articles about emergency public relations on this site (see citations below). In previous articles I warned that social media “could” be the source of massive rumors during an emergency “and” we within government were simply unprepared to analyze, process and respond to all that information.

There were two reactions to the articles:

First: Most who responded suggested that I was right. We are unprepared and it will have a negative impact on government’s ability to decrease panic and get good information out.

Second: But some suggested that I was overplaying my hand; social media is self correcting. Social media will eventually figure it out and offer correct information.

I stopped writing about the subject after twenty-five phone and on-line conversations because there just didn’t seem to be a resolution.

It’s just too easy to dismiss the impact of social media simply because none of us have the funds to access hundreds of thousands of messages on dozens of social sites, provide an analysis and respond appropriately. We can barely keep track of television and radio news outlets.

So we accept the concept that social media is self-correcting because we don’t have the ability to do anything else.


The next BIG event (a Katarina or 9-11) will be the first with a massive social media component. Will it make Grover’s Mill look like a quaint misunderstanding?

But what happens when someone creates a very lifelike but bogus series of televised news reports purposely spreading misinformation while placing the video on YouTube and dozens of additional social sites and while placing hundreds of messages on a related social sites? It “will” go viral. We won’t be able to stop it.

What if the message was of a dirty bomb or nuclear meltdown or massive spread of infectious disease? What if millions decided to get out now?

Too silly to contemplate? ”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,” (War of the Worlds; About.Com-see last link).

Best, Len.







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