I do not pretend to be an expert on international military affairs. But it seems we have entered a new age of post-Cold War war craft. Last Tuesday, media outlets across the United States reported the escape of several Ukrainian “attack” dolphins. RIA Novosti, a Russian news source, reported that the “killer” dolphins swam away from their handlers during training exercises in order to search for mates. The Russian media stated that the Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied these reports and refused to even acknowledge the existence of the dolphins. Given the repeated sightings of killer dolphins in the Black Sea, the Defense Ministry’s denials seemed baseless.
The attack dolphin training program originated in the Soviet era, when dolphins were trained to find military equipment such as mines on the seabed, and to attack divers and carry explosives to plant on enemy ships. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the program was handed over to the Ukrainian navy. The program redirected its energies to focus on more civilian tasks, such as working with disabled children.
In 2012, RIA Novosti learned that the killer dolphin-training program had been restarted. A source told the Russian news agency that the dolphins would be trained to fight with special knives and pistols attached to their heads.
Unfortunately for those who have always wanted to see a science fiction movie come to life, the crisis of the escaped attack dolphins appears to be based on a fake memo. Apparently, the “unnamed expert” cited by RIA Novosti was actually a disgruntled museum employee. The spread of this fake memo halfway across the globe is certainly an interesting exercise in the importance of checking your sources. But it is also a small example of just how much the balance of power has changed over the course of the past three decades or so.
If The New York Times had run a story about escaped Soviet attack dolphins in 1983, how would the world have reacted? Would Americans and Western Europeans have simply read the article, smiled a little and gone about their daily lives? Or would there have been a sudden explosive interest in the U.S. Navy’s own dolphin training program? (Which does actually exist, I might add—the U.S. Navy had dolphins “in theater” in the Persian Gulf during the American invasion of Iraq.) It seems likely that U.S. and Western European naval forces active in the Black Sea would have at least mounted some sort of dolphin defense. (What might constitute a dolphin defense system remains to be seen, however—perhaps a Sea World dolphin trainer with a bucket of fish. …)
While a disgruntled museum employee’s fake memo may not be precisely analogous to the Onion’s article naming Kim Jung Un the “Sexiest Man Alive for 2012,” the two fake news stories do have a couple of things in common. For one, both stories could appear on a “Spot the Onion Story” quiz. For another, both stories feed on the Internet’s love of the ridiculous.
There are three kinds of stories that are shared on social media—Onion stories, stories that could be in the Onion and stories about significant current events with a global impact (e.g., the election of Pope Francis). Problems arise when news outlets mistakenly identify a story’s category. The People’s Daily was so eager to share the great news of the North Korean leader’s new title that it forgot the lesson it should have learned a couple months before, when Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reported a fake Onion poll that found Americans preferred Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad over President Barack Obama. Similarly, American news outlets were so intrigued by the idea of rogue attack dolphins on the prowl for mates, that it took several days to discover the fake memo at the center of the concoction.
So what lessons can we learn from the Dolphin Dynamo Debacle of 2013? First, we can be happy that the story was only a blip on our spring break radar screen, rather than the instigator for a national discussion about dolphin defense systems. Second, we should really work on our post-Soviet Eastern European geography skills (the Black Sea probably remains an amorphous blob somewhere in Eastern Europe for most people who read the original story). And finally, if it looks like an Onion story, wait a couple of days before accepting the story as true. Because your social media instincts can recognize the ridiculous at the click of a mousepad.
Joline Doedens is a first-year law student. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Joline on Twitter @jydoedens.