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The tragedy of MH17 as seen through social media
The tragedy of MH17 as seen through social media
In the absence of concrete facts, the downing of the Malaysian Boeing 777 has been surrounded by speculative theories, fake news items and obvious untruths, all of them spread through the Internet via social media platforms.
The crash of MH17 on July 17, which took the lives of 298 people, among them 80 children, stands as one of the deadliest tragedies in recent aviation history, and all humanity shares the sorrow of the families that lost their loved ones.
It still remains unclear which side is actually responsible for
shooting the plane down, primarily due to the accusations,
In this environment of uncertainty and given the lack of concrete information, various speculative stories, fake news items and blatant provocations have appeared in social media. These social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube — play an important role in shaping public opinion because of their huge audience and wide usage as background news source for Internet users and even news agencies. Still, since all the posts are user generated, there are many questions concerning their quality and reliability.
Given that social media is now an increasingly important part of how we view the context of international events, it is useful to find some patterns of social media usage in the coverage of the MH17 tragedy.
#1: Posts in social media often serve as unreliable information sources
News agencies often use tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram photos and YouTube video clips as a source of information, sometimes without checking the reliability and identity of the authors of such posts.
For example, on July 17, Russia Today published news with reference
to the tweet of a «Spanish manager» named Carlos, who allegedly
worked at the Kiev airport «Borispol». The report said: «Military aircraft
flew close to the 777 for three minutes before it disappeared from
the radar». After Russia Today published this, the news was picked
up by RIA Novosti,
None of these media sources has provided evidence that the author is really a dispatcher working in Borispol. The press service of the Ukrainian airport authorities responded that a manager named «Carlos» doesn’t exist in Ukraine and that, according to the national legislation, only Ukrainian citizens can work in such positions. The account «spainbuca» was soon removed from Twitter.
Not only media sources, but also state agencies use posts in social
media in order to support their point of view. U.S. authorities
accused Russia of being behind the MH17 crash based on the evidence
of posts in social media. Of course, there appear new methods
of checking and verifying such content, but much remains
to be done in this direction before social media posts can
be used as sources of
On the morning of July 18, changes were made to the Wikipedia
article «List of aircraft accidents in civil aviation» concerning the
crash of the Malaysian Boeing 777 from an IP address
in Odessa. According to the changed article, «the plane was shot down
by terrorists from the
An hour later, the article was edited from another IP address belonging to RTR, a Russian TV network. The text was changed to the following: «The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian military». Right now, the information about the responsibility of one or the other party has been erased from the article.
On July 21, the Wikipedia article on the
During a statement by the Ministry of Defense, figures were
corrected from a Moscow IP address to 9,000 and 10,000 meters,
respectively. Three minutes later, the data was changed from another Moscow
IP address back to 5,000 and 7,000 meters. After that, several media
sources — including Nakanune.ru — published news that «American»
Wikipedia «urgently cleans specifications about the
By comparison, the site of the Defense Ministry of the
Russian Federation indicated that the combat range of the
#3: Russian state agencies are starting to play a prominent role in digital diplomacy and, as such, actively use social media to inform their audience
The term «social media diplomacy» first appeared in the United States, but now almost every country actively uses social media tools to communicate with its audience and clarify its position or policy.
The Russian Defense Ministry, in turn, decided to prove that the video of Donetsk militias driving the «Buk» missile systems back to Russia — a video published on the website of the Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry — is, instead, a fake. The Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of Russia, Andrei Kartapolov, said that the clip was filmed not in the busy city of Torez controlled by rebels, but in Krasnoarmeysk, which is controlled by the Ukrainian authorities.
#4: User communities and bloggers can prevent online fakes from going viral
Descriptions of social media «provocations» are published daily on the Ukrainian site StopFake. On July 21, members of this site reported that Alexander Vinokurov, the owner of the TV channel «Rain», came up with the news of the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Kiev. A day earlier, it reported a fake Time magazine cover photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the signature «Danke Frau Ribbentrop» («Thank you, Madam Ribbentrop»).
StopFake found out last week that the online edition of «Der Freitag»,
where material about the involvement of Ukrainian military in the
Boeing 777 crash was published, is
Often, the line between reality and a fake is hard
to distinguish. Take the recent case of the Instagram selfies from
Russian soldier Sanya Sotkin. By unlocking geolocation data from the
photo, sources claim that it’s further proof that Russian soldiers were
on the ground in Ukraine at the time of the MH17 crash, and
may have been in Ukrainian territory as early
But, as usual, some of the evidence appears to be too perfectly incriminating — as in the use of the word «Buk» added to a description of an Instagram photo, making it easier for others to find. Moreover, as some have pointed out, the Russian word «buk» could also refer to a notebook computer.
Social media: Curse or boon?
Social media provides information from
With scarce evidence available so far about the tragic fate of MH17, it is too early to make an assessment about who is directly responsible for the tragedy. Still, since any user can change the information found in social media, opposing positions become even more polarized, not only traumatizing those who lost their beloved ones, but also triggering international instability.
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