There’s a lot of discussion these days about how media influences people – both real and fake news. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944
Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.
And that’s when the real melee began.
MAD ANESTHETIST STRIKES AGAIN
STATE HUNTS GAS MADMAN
[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY
And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports. skeptoid.com
No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.
In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser.
Comparing newspaper space in square inches to the number of reports showed a very apparent causal effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And the Mad Gasser was as silent as the newspapers during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break.
The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria. skeptoid.com
A tense and fearful public was primed during wartime to believe with little evidence.
Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.
As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the echo chamber of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in living in different worlds. With so much media available, one outlet abandoning a debunked story has little affect.
No one can save us from ourselves.