PARIS -- Last week, a worker for the Hawaii Emergency Management System reportedly clicked the wrong menu option on a computer, resulting in mobile phones across the area being bombarded with the message: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."
There was no missile and no threat, but the panic was real. It was exacerbated by the breathless speculation in recent months -- particularly via 24-hour news channels -- about the increasing tensions between America and North Korea.
The "hostilities" existed primarily in the form of trash talking between the two countries' leaders -- Donald Trump via his Twitter account, and Kim Jong Un via official statements. Meanwhile, discussion about how each is making the other jumpy -- the U.S. via joint military exercises with South Korea, and North Korea via ballistic missile tests -- was either entirely absent from media reports or relegated to slanted, one-sided coverage.
Also missing was objective analysis from experts qualified to assess the likelihood of a military threat. Those experts are not necessarily American or even Western. The truth about North Korea is more likely to be gleaned from specialists whose countries have better access to the hermit kingdom through diplomatic and/or economic relationships.
Rather than trust the opinion of "Dr. Strangelove" establishment types whose "knowledge" of North Korea is typically limited to advocating the bombing of it, I listened to Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer his take during a press conference in Moscow just before Christmas. Putin explained that Kim fears being "regime-changed" but gave no indication that Russian leaders believe the North Korean leader to be a deranged madman.
Putin also dropped an interesting tidbit during his press conference.
"Supposing that the United States launches some strikes with high-precision non-nuclear weapons," he said. "What targets will be attacked? Do the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency know exactly what targets, and where, must be hit with one single strike? Of course they do not, because North Korea is a walled-in country."
This is a useful observation from a world leader. Unfortunately, there's been a coordinated effort in both the U.S. and Europe to reduce citizens' exposure to alternative points of view disseminated by Russian state media -- the same media that reliably reports the positions of Putin and the Russian government on a variety of global issues. It's also the same media that has dared to broadcast and publish the analyses of classical conservatives who, after witnessing the foreign-policy failures of the past 20 years, refuse to consider military action as a first resort and demand access to a much larger picture than the one painted by the Washington establishment. For example, the funding and training of the Syrian "rebels" who went on to form the Islamic State was initially exposed by these heterodox thinkers, and it helped keep America out of a prolonged military conflict in Syria.
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the European Commission are eager to dismiss the reporting of the Russian media as "fake news." The Foreign Relations Committee released a hysterical report last week titled "Putin's Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security." The European Commission is in the middle of a "professional consultation" on fake news and online disinformation amid concern that it might be influencing elections
Does "fake news" exist? Of course. Particularly when the definition of "media" has been expanded to include literally anyone whose reportage was previously relegated to scribbles on bathroom walls. That's how fake news started -- with gossipy scribbles about people, as washroom walls became cleaner and the internet became dirtier. The difference now is that both the targets and the audience are global. Those of us who have been around since the advent of the internet realize that much of the information we consume online must be taken with a grain of salt.
We also know that this problem existed long before it became politically expedient to tie the spread of disinformation to Russia for political purposes. The end result of dragging information into this new Cold War is a much more narrow perspective, more fear and ignorance, a higher risk of actual war, more unchecked propaganda disseminated under the guise of "truth," and more people who are likely to believe that a missile could be heading toward them at any time.