The Fog of Twitter: Ukraine's civil war and the limits of social news gathering
Just in case you missed it, there’s a real fucking civil war raging in Eastern Ukraine. On July 2, a day after newly elected billionaire President Petro Poroshenko called off a ceasefire, residential areas in several towns and villages in the Lugansk and Donestk regions came under intense shelling and air bombardment.
The town of Slavyansk, which has seen a lot of fighting, was shelled. The Ukrainian Air Force bombed the village of Stanytsia Luhanska. The attack obliterated an entire residential area, shredding houses, people and pets, and littering the area with pieces of intestines, toes and cats — yes, dead kitties. There are several very graphic videos of the aftermath — faces of death delivered to YouTube for global viewing within a few dozen minutes of it happening.
Here's one of the less graphic videos from strike on Stanytsia Luhanska, where at least 10 people were killed and many more injured.
"Go ahead, film this! Fascists! Fascist fucks. It’s that bitch, Poroshenko!"
But you wouldn't know any of this from the U.S. news media, which has been soft-censoring and whitewashing anything that could show the Ukrainian government in a bad light from the very beginning of the conflict. The New York Times alluded to yesterday's"ground assaults and air bombardments" and mumbled something about "civilian casualties" — but made it unclear who was doing the shooting or the dying. Other newspapers are equally mum on Ukraine's attack on Ukrainian civilians. Meanwhile, US cable network news pretends none of this even exists.
And so social media has been instrumental in keeping up with events as they happen: Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal and VKontakte — are all indispensable when it comes to figuring out what the hell is really going on. But there's a big catch: social media might make raw information freely available, but it doesn't make it any easier to figure out what is really going on. Even if you speak Russian, it can be hard to separate out disinformation and the bullshit
Eye witnesses in the crowd sourced videos up top said the attack on Stanytsia Luhanska came from a Ukrainian Su-24 fighter jet. But the Ukrainian Air Force denied responsibility, blaming it on separatist militias instead. So who to believe?
In an attempt to figure out what the hell was going, I found myself going down a rabbit hole, wasting half a day trawling Twitter and LiveJournal blogs, watching YouTube and LiveLeak videos and enriching it all with Russian TV news reports.
What makes the job a lot harder is that both sides are using social media tools to shape the story and warp reality to serve their political agenda.
All sorts of public relations fronts have popped up since the Maidan "revolution" began. There's plenty of social media outfits on both the Russian and Ukrainian side. One of the better financed examples: Euromaidan PR, an expert social media group that runs Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as a fancy web mag that pushes a 100% pro-West and anti-Russian stream of information, including highly offensive gloating over "Russian terrorists" being burned alive Ukraine.
The social media world is a boiling vat of ignorance, chauvinism and propaganda. Still, many of the Twitter PR fronts are obvious in their biases. More difficult to pin down are ostensibly neutral and academic outfits like The Interpreter. It claims to be an objective resource "dedicated primarily to translating media from the Russian press and blogosphere into English." In reality, the Interpreter is a highly biased publication funded by the son of deposed Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Naturally, it questioned reports that the Ukrainian Air Force bombed a peaceful Ukrainian village, and blamed the deaths on anti-Kiev militias.
The role of a good journalism is to cut through the noise and attempt to describe reality as best as possible. Watching the Ukraine civil war unfold from afar gives a glimpse into the dangers of relying on solely social media and crowdsourced news gathering and analysis.
Social media is cool and all, but the limits are clear. Real reporting isn't cheap and can be downright dangerous, but we're screwed if we think we can have an informed society of citizen journalists and thinktank-funded blogger-analysts.
Unfortunately, the newspapers cut their reporting staff by about 30% since the financial crash in 2008. Meanwhile, PR folks are estimated to now outnumber reporters 4 to 1 — a ratio that's doubled since the 1980s.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]