Daily Archives: March 14, 2010

False Alarms…

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The poor souls living in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had a very nasty shock last night when they turned on their TV. The local station, Imedi, were broadcasting news that Russian tanks had invaded the capital and that the President, Mikheil Saakvili, had been assassinated. Unsurprisingly, this news caused panic – especially when considering that only eighteen months ago, Russia had penetrated Georgian defences and got within 30 miles of Tbilisi. The mobile phone networks were overwhelmed and people rushed onto the streets.

However, it was untrue. The broadcast had shown archive footage and speculated how the opposition might seize power with the President’s death – and although it was introduced as a simulation, that detail slid by many horrified Georgians. So why did Imedi create such a scare story? Apparently, in an attempt to show the ‘real threat’ to the country if such events might unfold, the head of Imedi told Reuters.

So much for political neutrality… We might have our grumbles about supposed favouritism by certain commentators and interviewers – but thank goodness the BBC hasn’t seen fit to run that particular wheeze. Yet…

It’s not the first time that such panics have happened. Perhaps the most famous one is the 1938 CBS Radio play based on H.G. Wells’ book War of the Worlds, that had announcers describing how Martians were marching across New York. Despite sporadic announcements informing the listening audience that it was a play, many believed they were hearing a real invasion – an impression strengthened by the fact that no commercial breaks ran for the duration of the airing. The emergency services were swamped with panicked calls – and in a horrible coincidence in the town of Concrete, Washington, the power supply shorted out just as the ‘Martian landing’ was being played on the radio. Many families fled for the hills, while some apparently fainted with terror…

This incident has been much discussed – and is often used to show just how naïve and pliable the listening public can be. A number of conspiracy theories have sprung up around the whole thing. Some claim that the broadcast was an attempt to cover up UFO activity and defuse any panic. Others claim that it was an experiment into crowd psychology funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1994, the inhabitants of Tiayuan, China were repeatedly warned about a Sibuxiang beast on the loose and heading for the city. ‘It is said that the Sibuxiang is penetrating our area from Yanmenguan Pass and with in days will enter thousands of homes. Everyone close your windows and doors and be on the alert.’

The Sibuxiang is a mythical creature with a lethally poisonous bite. Unsurprisingly, Tiayuan residents barricaded themselves in their homes, while others called the local authorities. However, the announcement was part of an advertisement campaign for a drink. The creator of the ad was fined 5000 yuan (roughly £300) for causing public panic, but felt it was worth it. The ensuing alarm and publicity ensured that Sibuxiang liquor became famous. Again, during the inevitable discussions in the aftermath, the authorities believed that the relative inexperience of many of the Chinese TV audience was the main cause of the misunderstanding.

It would be tempting to believe that this kind of panic caused by such hoaxes or publicity stunts is purely a modern trend. But I’m not so sure. Human nature doesn’t change…

Back in the 1580’s, when England was bracing herself for inevitable invasion by mighty Spain, a series of signal fires were arranged all along the south coast with watchers. At the first sight of Spanish warships, these fires were lit, one after the other, stretching as far as London. I don’t know whether anyone ever falsely or accidentally lit one, which then caused the next one to light up until they were all blazing – to the consternation and panic of everyone who saw them. But I’d be very surprised if it never happened…

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