What This Viral Meme Gets Wrong About Trump and DEFCON

November 16th 2016

Quite a few people read an online story in July, which claimed that the DEFCON level, the defense readiness condition alert used by the U.S. military, had increased from its lowest level of five to level three, which indicted an "increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness."

Another published online story alleged that President-elect Trump saved Americans by lowering the DEFCON level to five, which indicated normal readiness. But the DEFCON level wasn't raised in July, nor was it lowered after the election because those reports were fake news — none of it happened.

The DEFCON "story" was first "reported" in a live-blog on SuperStation95, a conspiracy-driven fake news hub pretending to be the website of news station 95.1 FM in New York City — a classic rock station on the other side of the state.

The faux report was heavily lifted from both Wikipedia and tweets by DEFCON Warning System, an independent site that offers, "News and analysis on the current nuclear threat against the United States." Per a disclaimer on the site, DEFCON Warning System "is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch."

Even DEFCON Warning System doesn't claim the U.S. raised its DEFCON level, nor would it have any authority to say it did. Only the SuperStation95 story mentions it, grimly intoning, "multiple, solidly reliable confirmations of DEFCON-3." But, there were none.

The site's story then made its way to British tabloid The Express, along with a slew of popular conspiracy theory sites. It also spiked on Google Trends in both July and October, indicating a high number of people were searching for the term.

Searches for "defcon 3"Google - google.com

In October, there was another spike in Google searches and fake stories at conspiracy sites like InfoWars, most citing the previous fake story. Snopes released a comprehensive debunking of the story in June, which should have settled the matter — but it didn't.

Soon after Trump was elected Tuesday, DEFCON Warning System struck, again, posting on Nov. 10: "The United States took a tentative step toward a more isolationist policy with its recent presidential election" and showing the "DEFCON level" at five.

The Express jumped on it, again, declaring, "AMERICA’S Defcon warning level has been reduced to its safest threat level possible following Donald Trump’s shock presidential election win." This time, even the Wall Street Journal fell for it, including a link to the Express story on its opinion page.

Again, nothing about it was true. The DEFCON level can only be raised by the president or secretary of defense, and has only been raised above four a few times. The most recent was on Sept. 11, 2001, when it was raised to three, before being dropped back to four a few days later.

This is exactly how fake news spreads. A dubious website passing itself off as legitimate will publish a story that's just plausible enough to people inclined to believe such stories without checking its veracity.

Superstation95 and DEFCON Warning System may sound legitimate, as possibly does Russia and the U.S. having friction necessitating an escalating of military readiness. And who better to resolve that tension than friend of Vladimir Putin, President-elect Trump?

Hopefully, the real DEFCON level won't be raised soon, so no one will have to find out.

Update 11/17/2016 2:20 p.m. PT: This story was updated for clarity regarding the site DEFCON Warning System.

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