Berlin, Germany — The German government announced yesterday that it was banning all recordings of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio drama version of War of the Worlds for fear it would incite unrest among their population and because its ‘fake news.’ The announcement is the first action taken by the Berlin government in its war on fake news and coincides with Facebook’s announcement that the world’s largest social network would enable German users to flag potentially false stories.
“The War of the Worlds” is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on Sunday, October 30, 1938. The first two-thirds of the one-hour broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. In the days following the adaptation, widespread outrage was expressed in the media. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast and calls for regulation and censorship. Following the radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” many newspapers ironically claimed that the drama had caused wide-spread panic. This led to the producers of the radio program to conclude that Americans are dangerously stupid.
Unlike the United States, Germany has much more conservative speech laws and citizens and institutions don’t benefit from the same kinds of protections many Americans take for granted. Germany’s decision to actively censor Internet content comes on the heels of allegations that Russia hacked the recent elections and influenced the outcome in favor of Donald Trump. German government officials have expressed concern that misinformation on the Internet could influence the country’s parliamentary election this year. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has also repeatedly warned about fake news on Facebook, and called on the firm to respect the country’s defamation laws, which are stricter than in the US.
“It is clear that any broadcast of War of the Worlds without the proper context would lead to wide-spread unrest,” said German Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection Heiko Maas speaking about the this first action. “As we learned from 1938, such falsehoods can stir up hysteria and cause people to act irrationally, so its better they not hear such deceptions.”
In a new law passed in December ahead of the German elections, Facebook could be fined over $500,000 for each fake news post it allows on its network. Responding to this, the social media giant announced that it is working with several fact checkers, notably the US-based comedy and women’s fashion site Snopes.com to ‘vet’ fake-news flagged articles. Facebook fact checkers must sign up to a code of principles to take part. Some of the fact-checking requirements include having a dense or no sense of humor and oddly the ability to spot easily spot fake news “because I know it when I see it.”
Facebook stock has dropped in after-hours trading by 14.3% as analysts say the fake news and its advertisers make up as much as 25% of operating revenue.