The scenes last week in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa were horrific: Close to 50 people were reportedly killed, most of them pro-Russian activists who burned to death or were asphyxiated when a building that housed the local trade unions caught fire.
It was the worst single-day tragedy in Ukraine since the revolution began in February, when former President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown and more than a hundred people died in Kiev.
As is the rule today, social media played a part in bringing the events in Odessa to light. At least two web videos live streamed the initial clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists and then showed fighting at the trade union building. Twitter provided photos, updates, and commentary. Facebook was inundated with postings.
From the safety of my living room in Kiev, I watched it unfold: the first people killed by gunfire, the pitched battles in the center of Odessa, and the retreat by the pro-Russian forces to the trade union building where they had a base. And then I witnessed the fiery chaos of Molotov cocktails, the stones hurled from both sides, and the people crying from the windows for help, some jumping from the upper floors when the blaze became too intense. After that, the horrified reports emerged that dozens had perished.
Social Media: The Dark Side
Once the violence on the ground subsided, the struggle moved from reality to disinformation, as pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians fought for their interpretation of what had happened and who had suffered more and assigned blame or expressed outrage—or called for revenge.
There have been some objective attempts to chronicle the Odessa events, notably by Roland Oliphant for the Telegraph and Howard Amos for the Guardian. But among the few honest efforts to bring order to what amounted to utter mayhem, there have been many more incomplete or one-sided versions, distortions, and sometimes outright falsehoods.
As Ukraine teeters on the edge of civil war, much of the rage and division in the country, it seems, is fueled directly by social networks.
By providing only a limited, partial presentation of facts, which people can pick through until they find something to agree with, social media networks distort reality and play to preconceived notions. Through repetition, and because these "reports" have appeared in a medium of mass communication, all this takes on the veneer of truth, or at least of legitimacy.
Supporters of both sides have left out key facts. Pro-Russians glossed over or denied that members of their contingent apparently shot at the pro-Ukrainians from behind police lines (as one video seems to suggest). It appears they may have attacked first and continued to fire on the pro-Ukrainians even as flames raged in the trade union building. Also ignored was the fact that many pro-Russians were saved by the pro-Ukrainians, who set up makeshift ladders for people to climb down.
But the pro-Ukrainians have omitted important information as well. Their crowd was packed with far-right nationalists. They too were well armed and ready for a fight—although perhaps not to the degree that the pro-Russians were. When the trade union building started to burn, and pro-Russians jumped from ledges, at least one pro-Ukrainian continued to fire his pistol, and some cheered.
"There was clearly a blood lust," an American reporter told the BBC. "And the police didn't come for an hour and a half, and even when they were there, they did … almost nothing, to stop the violence." This fact is almost universally ignored among pro-unity Ukrainians and by the country's press.
Lies of a Different Magnitude
War and civil conflict have always been a fertile breeding ground for untruths—facts are bent, slanted, and created out of whole cloth. Think of the commonly held belief during World War I that Germans bayoneted Belgian babies. Such urban myths spring up and influence not only public opinion but sometimes the trajectory of the violence as well.
But what I've observed in the aftermath of the Odessa tragedy is of a different order. The Internet and social media have illuminated reality, yes, but they've also spread disinformation with head-spinning magnitude and speed.
Twitter, in particular, with its strict parameters, is a particularly distorting lens: A myriad of tweets providing partial or incomplete information do not ultimately create a full picture—they provide a giant incomplete picture. Especially if they're all tweeting the same thing. A lie, or a half-truth, spread via Twitter has an enormously wider and faster impact than the rumors of old.
In Ukraine these days, urban myths are on steroids. The confirmation bias that Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman has written about—the idea that people choose evidence that supports what they already believed—has hugely been amplified, or exaggerated, by the Internet and social networks.
Both sides have narratives they cling to, and thanks to carefully curated lists of tweeters they follow and of friends on Facebook, they need never be confronted by a contradictory piece of information.
For the pro-Ukrainian camp, it's become a point of conviction that the majority of those who died in the trade union building were from elsewhere—thereby bolstering their (plausible) argument that Moscow planned the attacks in advance. But so far, Ukrainian authorities haven't released any information on the identities of those who died.
It doesn't matter. The claim that non-Ukrainian fighters were in the trade union building has been broadcast all over the Internet—and that torrent inevitably lends legitimacy to it.
After Roland Oliphant's piece came out in the Telegraph, his attempt at balanced reporting elicited angry reactions. "I got blowback from both sides—it was pretty unpleasant," he said, adding that he got "more flack from the Russian bloggers" who accused him of being a "fascist apologist."
People on both sides are becoming ever more dug into their own narratives, turning to unverified reports and visual evidence cherry-picked from the Internet and social media to reinforce their beliefs.
Right now, no country is more bullish on the Internet than Russia. Moscow has created an information juggernaut—some say a propaganda machine—to project its version of events in Ukraine. After Odessa, its gears went into overdrive.
The Kremlin, which has a near monopoly on traditional mass media outlets (Russia has only one independent television channel, and its broadcasting reach has been restricted), is now clamping down on new media. The upper house of parliament recently passed a law, which, if it goes into effect, would place severe restrictions on blogs and websites that attract more than 3,000 readers.
As Ukraine teeters on the brink of a major war, it's clear that the Internet and social media, for all their potential as a disruptive force for good, have emerged as a disruptive force for ill in the field of human conflict.