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.


People take photos of a screen showing arrival details of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on July 18, 2014. Photo: AP

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, counter-accusations and lack of concrete facts that surround the tragic event. Even the analysis of the flight recorders, which is still being conducted in Great Britain, may take up to several weeks. With the preliminary data of the recorders retrieved last week, there is still no clarity. 

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, ITAR-TASS, and the Russian television networks Channel One and NTV.

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 high-quality, reliable information.

#2: User-generated Internet resources like Wikipedia are prone to manipulation

Such peer-reviewed Internet resources as Wikipedia, where all the information is created and edited by its users, can provide a lot of useful information, but the problem is that there is no third party arbiter who guarantees its reliability. The information on such Internet platforms can be edited by users who sometimes co-opt this information to pursue political instead of educational or scientific goals, as it was presumed by the creators of Wikipedia.

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 self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk with “Buk” rocket launchers obtained from the Russian Federation."

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 SU-25 (which, according to the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, could have been used to shoot down MH17) was edited. Initially, the article stated that the maximum height of the combat use of SU-25 is 5,000 meters, and the practical flight ceiling is 7,000 meters.

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 - published news that "American" Wikipedia "urgently cleans specifications about the SU-25."

By comparison, the site of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation indicated that the combat range of the SU-25 is 3,000 to 5,000 meters, and that the practical flight ceiling is 10,000 meters.

#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.

For example, U.S. White House Press Secretary Josh Ernest told the U.S. media that the proof of Ukrainian military innocence is based on "the posts of separatists in social networks claiming that they shot down the plane." After a YouTube video clip surfaced, he also noted that these separatists are carrying anti-aircraft missile systems back to Russia from across the Ukrainian-Russian border.

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 user-generated. This did not prevent Russia Today from referring to it as a reliable resource.

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 as mid-June.

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 first-hand accounts, from witnesses and from those who directly participate in breaking news events. All of this enables interaction with a wide audience. However, in the situation of political conflict, social media can also play a dangerous role, escalating conflict and polarizing opinion. As we’ve seen, even with a highly visible event like MH17, it’s difficult to separate reality from illusion in social media.

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.