Tonight I found myself in the middle of a modern day “War of the Worlds.” Of course I have learned of the infamous H.G. Wells panic-inducing 1938 radio show in communication history courses, but I never thought I would see a similar situation arise. While we may think that technology has made these communication fiascos obsolete, the potential for such occurrences is, as I learned tonight, timely.
When I was at a birthday gathering this evening, a guest arrived in a panic. She spoke of a cyberattack that had happened mere minutes ago. Millions on were out of power, cell phones were down, the Internet was in disarray and an emergency meeting was taking place at the White House as we spoke. While everyone else believed her, I was skeptical and asked how she found this out. She was watching a report on the news she said. We turned on the television and after flipping through several channels we finally found a cyberattack panel.
The first thing I noticed during this conference was the “simulation” scrolling across the screen. I calmly told the frantic guest that I was pretty sure this was not real. My evidence: the “simulation” reference and the fact that this was the only channel playing this “breaking report.” She politely disagreed with me, as did most other guests.
As soon as I got home, I went straight to CNN. My skepticism was confirmed when the homepage did not mention one thing about a cyberattack. After searching for “cyberattack” I finally found it on CNN. Last Tuesday, a Washington think tank staged a mock cyberattack on the United States on Tuesday to evaluate strategies for fighting cyberterrorists.
Just as Orson Welles confirmed during the radio broadcast that the “War of the Worlds” story was fictional and for entertainment purposes, so did this simulated news panel; however, in both situations the listeners – and viewer in this case – believed otherwise. The evolution of technology does not necessarily change the fact that even televised simulations can be taken for real, and that using the media to spread word of such faux attacks is a gamble.
While the “War of the Worlds” panic spread through word of mouth, the Internet has the power to exponentially increase panic by the sheer nature of ripple effect and rapid communication. In enacting mock attacks and emergency simulations, those who choose to put them on, especially the government, must make it clear through all of their communication channels that it is in fact a simulation. A plan for crisis communication should also be put into place should widespread panic ensue.
To see a video on the mock cyberattack, see CNN’s coverage here.