Social media coverage of the terrorist bombing at two stations of the Moscow metro in the early hours of Monday morning -- on Twitter, Live Journal, and Youtube -- starkly revealed the fallacy of the social media advantage, and laid bare the dependency of the Russian people on their state-controlled media. That's my conclusion after looking at a lot of Twitter and other media for the last few hours.
Hours after the blast, it did not seem as if a single Muscovite was reporting live from the scene getting the story on his cell phone *as an independent narrative*. Instead, what was happening was that droves of Muscovites and ex-pats were sitting at their desks or tweeting from phones not at the scene, essentially regurgitating what official media was telling them. To be sure, the admixture of personal commentary including a few actual live comments from survivors at the scene with official statements of what happened and the emergency response over social media created the impression of something vivid and live. But it wasn't even as independent as the students in the far more authoritarian Iran, who as a "crowdsource" have become more critical in reporting on the government, and it was nothing like coverage of other disasters like Haiti with lots of foreigners present.
Many people were distressed and angry at the false report and retweeting of the 3rd bomb supposedly at Prospekt Mira -- I was one of those who translated and resent the report because it came from a person on a cell phone saying they were walking away from the scene at the metro, seeing a crowd, and the escalators had been stopped. But they had mixed up the name of the stop with Park Kultury, where the second blast did occur. This report and the picture of the crowd jammed into the station without the ability to exit was one of the very few pictures of the scene telling an unofficial story. Other cell phone coverage only showed crowds silently milling around with no attempts to go question authority or ask survivors anything. The passivity induced in people from many years of dependency on officially-controlled media -- even when they have the tools of social media -- is striking.
The entire narrative was wrapped up and owned by the official pro-Kremlin or outright state-owned media within an hour of the explosion, and few could encrouch on it without a browbeating from their fellow tweeters. RIA Novosti took up their Youtube prime time with a lengthy eyewitness report of a survivor who talked about how the blast came after the train had stopped for several minutes, in the center of the platform, with shaking and dust -- but there were no interviews of officials or any other victims who might have seen suspicious activity.
Within a few hours, everybody was retweeting, or writing on their Live Journal, the exact words of the Russian prosecutor put out by Interfax, the state news service: that two suicide bombers, called "shakhidki" in Russian parliance, had committed the terrorist act. It is not known how they arrived at that conclusion, but their arrival at that conclusion now had thousands of enthusiastic social media broadcasters faithfully relaying their version of events as if from a lively, authentic, informed and critical source -- even though they were anything but that.
Some opposition commentators reliably began the drumbeat, like the truthers in the U.S., that it was an "inside job," that Putin was responsible, and that he was doing it to distract from the fact that in recent weeks, there has been a burgeoning movement calling for his resignation due to sharp economic privation in many areas, with thousands of signatures of prominent people and ordinary Russians on petitions, and thousands of people demonstrating in various cities. Time to invoke the domestic threat of terrorism as an excuse to crack down on any dissent, so the theory goes.
Another meme that appeared reliable like mushrooms after the rain was the idea that CNN was #fail. This was put out by a number of young, arrogant male social media gurus who seem to think that if CNN were to cover an event before they can tweet it, that it might be a personal threat to their manhood, so gleefully and viciously do they denounce its "lateness". But CNN is a TV station, not an SMS text service, and needs *video footage* of an event to *broadcast*, not tweets with mistaken information or deliberate disinformation. Claims that Russia Today, with it plummy British accents like a Soviet international TV station telling only the official side of the story, was "covering it for hours" are terribly misleading. We began to hear from Russian tweeters that they weren't *any* local TV stations providing live coverage of the blast on their domestic TV; that Russia Today was broadcasting abroad for foreigners or in English, and was basically showing just speculating talking heads or eyewitnesses curiously interviewed in the studio afterward, instead of right at the scene.
I emphasize that this is my first take on what is happening, that it is dependent on whatever Twitter stream I can find through my own list of people I follow in Russia, and trying to find various hashtags. Perhaps we'll find there is or was or will be a brave intrepid band of tweeters getting the real story, questioning whether anyone saw females in black scarves or whether the bomb seemed to be detonated by mobile phones, as a source told Interfax in an early report. But I'm not seeing them now.
And the entire scene makes me pessimistic not only about Russia's dysmal official media scene, and the erroneous idea in the minds of Western "technical assistance trainers" and other various do-gooders that you can add on a new social media gilding to this dead lily and liven it up with "youth" and "enthusiasm". In fact, all you are doing is teaching people how to be better and more effective propagandists with the overwhelmingly official and biased sources that blanket their news space.
A number of Russians tweeting expressed themselves in religious terms, praying for the welfare of survivors, thanking God something made them avoid those subway stops. It was the start of the Holy Week, as Easter next Sunday coincides for both Western and Eastern Orthodox Christians this year. So the feeling was that it was done deliberately to the Christian Russian people by Muslims.
One Russian tweeter, admonishing people like a courtyard babushka, but in her 20s judging from her picture, was upset that people were hanging out on Twitter and arguing over which hashtags to use, an urged people to go to the scene to help drive people away, as taxi drivers were supposedly charging US $100 per ride for the service (3000 rubles). That might have been ill-advised given the traffic jams, but she continued to berate her fellow tweeters for not caring about people, and instead, continuing to speculate whether it was an inside job. But unless an opposition is free to question what the police did or did not know in advance, and how they responded, the truth of the situation cannot be reached.
And for some reason the garrulous California-based Queen of Spain, who is always among the first to tweet disasters in a vaunted sense of being public spirited, began to crab that people were getting the story wrong, that this was a disservice, that news is better when the professionals are culling through the stream and getting it right.There seems to be little tolerance among the Twitterati these days for those rough drafts of history called journalism if it ever makes a mistake.
I pointed out that she is merely seeing how the sausage is made now, but she maintained that credibility comes from who you are on Twitter, too -- i.e. a verified account, the type and number of followers. Like many, her idea of credible tweeting doesn't mean professional journalists, but seems to mean figures she trusts from her personal circle of prominent Silicon Valley tech bloggers.
I found it annoying that just like the fake stories sprang up, and the official reports were dutifully retweeted with the readiness to buy the female suicide bombers line without independent corroboration, there were these "new media" and "community journalism" accounts that sprang up and immediately began to try to take over, telling people to share video with them, putting out tweets faster than others either due to obsessiveness or language ability or perhaps actually having an "inside source" but never explaining who they were, and why without only 100 followers an an account just made we were supposed to imagine they were "breaking news" specialists.
To be sure, if you were an intrepid reporter, it would be damn hard to get past the beefy MChS men who blanketed the subway areas, some of whom are already in place routinely. The first blast took place at the Lubyanka stop, which is near the old KGB headquarters and prison by that name, and a building still used by some of the KGB's descendents in the Federal Security Service (FSB). The second blast was at Park Kultury, a well-trafficked busy spot near a famous park which would also routinely have lots of police at it anyway. One tweet spoke of increased police presence in general in recent weeks, as if the police knew something the public didn't know (and maybe they did!). But this could be due to the dissent and demonstrations of recent weeks.
Trying to chase down every single lead I could find through search or my own streams that might have an actual live report or independent report, every single one had in fact as its source RIA Novosti, Interfax, and Ekho Moskvy. Ekho Moskvy is the only independent radio station in Moscow, and relatively small; its Internet site was immediately overwhelmed and you couldn't turn the pages or tune in the stream as it had too many users already.
When you know a lot about a topic, you are always appalled to read the Wikipedia page and see the errors, misinformation, plagiarism and bias on the page. You don't see that on a page where you don't know something and you are happy for at least somebody assembling something.
The experience of seeing the Moscow blast story unfold on Twitter has given me a newfound doubt in the ability of social media to do anything but creatively replay the news as told by those in power. Once again, social media is only as good a the society wielding it; it is social. If that society is not free, social media layered on to it will not necessarily produce more freedom, and may ultimately only reinforce less. The hope is that a few will break through the wall.