We live in a new era where false alerts, fake news, and impending nuclear war are a reality we face daily. Within two weeks there were more false alerts for nuclear strikes than there have been in human history. When fake news can influence the twitter account of the executive branch of the United States government, there is a clear indication that the world is at risk of fighting words gone nuclear.
It’s the responsibility of the citizens of Earth to recognize the fallibility of men, the hyperbole of tweets, and the very real and devastating consequences of the decisions of our elected officials and global leadership.
Here’s what you need to know about False Alerts, Fake News, & Nuclear War:
- On January 13, 2018 at 8:07 a.m., Hawaiians were told the end was near.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
- By 8:10, the head of the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency had confirmed with U.S. Pacific Command that the alert was false–but that didn’t stop it from remaining in place for an agonizing 38 minutes.
- Senators Tulsi Gabbard and Brian Schatz tweeted that it was a false alarm, while Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, spent 15 minutes struggling to remember his Twitter password before tweeting his own reassurance.
- At 8:45, Ige announced that someone had “pushed the wrong button” during an employee shift change, while the White House gave a contradictory explanation that the alert was an “emergency management exercise.”
“The risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical—accidents have happened in the past, and humans will err again,” tweeted former Secretary of Defense William Perry on the day of the alert.
- “When the lives of millions are at risk, we must do more than just hope that mistakes won’t happen.”
- Senator Schatz agreed, tweeting, “The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”
- The employee told officials that he sent the alert intentionally, believing it was real after hearing only the phrase “this is not a drill” extracted from a longer message. The FCC says that it is “not in a position to fully evaluate the credibility of [the employee’s] assertion that they believed there was an actual missile threat and intentionally sent the live alert.”
- Everything about the false alert in Hawaii was unusual–the conflicting explanations, state officials’ reliance on social media, the unexplained time lag, and most of all, the fact that it happened at all. There had not been a false nuclear war alert since February 1971, when the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) sent out a televised warning of impending thermonuclear war, which was retracted 40 minutes later.
- January 13, 2018, was only the second time a false alert about an impending nuclear missile had been sent to the public.
- January 16, 2018 marked the third time. In Japan, users who had downloaded an app from public broadcaster NHK received an alert that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile and that they should seek shelter. Unlike the Hawaiian alert, the Japanese false alert was corrected within minutes.
- Two cases of false nuclear alerts in one week–after 47 years of none at all–raises disturbing questions. The false alerts arrived when the world is closer to nuclear war than at any point in human history, including, according to experts, during the Cold War
On January 25, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their doomsday clock to two minutes to midnight, the most perilous position ever, due in part due to Trump’s enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and perceived openness to launch a preemptive strike as well as Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear ambitions.
- In addition to the ongoing question of Trump’s temperament, we face a new crisis: Today, digital technology makes it easier than ever to manipulate officials and the public through false alarms.
- While no official has claimed that either the Hawaii or Japan false alert was due to a hack, one can imagine why a hostile actor would hack an alert system if causing chaos–or starting a war–was their goal.
- The Hawaii and Japan false alarms should be considered a wake-up call as to the need for clear official communication, impenetrable alert systems, and sensitivity toward how respective leaders and populations will react should an alarm occur. Japanese citizens, who have to live with actual missile tests from North Korea, did not share the understandably panicked reaction of Hawaiians, for whom the experience was new.
- The frightened reaction of Americans was rooted not only in the terrifying unfamiliarity of receiving a missile alert, but in knowing that the administration has proposed using nuclear weapons on North Korea should they strike U.S. soil. Nuclear strikes are no longer a tactic of last resort, but perhaps a presidential preference. This marks a dangerous break from the past. With the missile alert system vulnerable to both human error and hacks, it is increasingly likely that fake news could launch a real war.