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A photo of a pro-Russian activist aiming a pistol at supporters of the Kiev government.

A pro-Russian activist points a gun at supporters of the Kiev government during protests in Odessa on May 2.

PHOTOGRAPH BY YEVGENY VOLOKIN, REUTERS

David Stern

for National Geographic

Published May 10, 2014

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.

A photo of people waiting to be rescued from a burning building in Odessa, Ukraine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY YEVGENY VOLOKIN, REUTERS
People wait to be rescued from a burning building in Odessa on May 2.

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.

An unsubstantiated and incendiary claim of the number of fatalities.

 

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.

Right sector is the small right wing umbrella organization that the pro-Russians blame for everything—they say the Kiev government is a "fascist junta" run by them.

 

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.

This is a good example of Russia Today's coverage: The pro-Ukrainians are "radicals" and the pro-Russians are "activists." Only one side is throwing stones, though it was clearly mutual.

 

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.

A photo of a protestor throwing a petrol bomb at the trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY YEVGENY VOLOKIN, REUTERS
A protester lobs a gasoline bomb at a building in Odessa on May 2.

"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.

A particularly alarmist (and false) tweet a couple of days after the clashes.

 

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.

A good example of a completely unconfirmed report from the pro-Ukrainian side.

 

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.

A good example of the "Russian fighter" meme, which claimed large number of non-Ukrainians were engaged in the fighting.

 

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.

Propaganda Machine

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.

29 comments
Piotr Plaskon
Piotr Plaskon

We should be careful what we say, share, tweet and send on social media networks. This may cause bigger, unimaginable impact, sometimes deadly one. 

Never judge on the first tweet you read. Dig deep down and search other sources before sharing it further. 

robert brooke
robert brooke

With the internet and social media in existence today,it seems a new edition of Phillip Knightley's The First Casualty would be timely.

Ray Finch
Ray Finch

Great article and absolutely agree with your thesis. As one who tries to follow events in this part of the world via social media, it’s nearly impossible to sort out or decipher the 24/7 fire-hose of (dis) information. While I may be biased, from my perspective, the Russian side has been more successful in distorting the truth.

The Kremlin has invested heavily in gaining and expanding its information arsenal (to include social media) over the past decade. Among Russia’s national media, there is little regard for objectivity and one-sided information is used as a weapon to portray the pro-Kremlin message.  Journalism has become equated with propaganda. These same biased news reports are cut/pasted and amplified within Russian social media.

Given the level of poisoned rhetoric within the Russian information sphere, I fear that the seeds of hatred will continue to take root and blossom beyond the borders of Russia.

Danila Hiding
Danila Hiding

Samuel Orca, according to polls, Pravy Sektor and Svoboda enjoy the support of 1% and 1,5% of the population respectively. The Russian propaganda machine is using those names to smear all of Ukraine with fascism while in Russia itself United Russia and its cohort puppet parties, now undeniably fascist, are supported by over 90%.

Danila Hiding
Danila Hiding

"But the pro-Ukrainians have omitted important information as well. Their crowd was packed with far-right nationalists. "

I want to see proof of this, please.


"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."

This is simply untrue. It was widely reported and discussed that the Odessa police was either passive or on the side of the terrorists.

Samuel Orca
Samuel Orca

Mr. Stern ,

The social media can be misleading , biased and fake however is not

censured or control by any government or entity.

What is the alternative ?

I was reading the Guardian today. Alexander Marquardt ABC News

posted a fake photoshop of a woman casting 2 ballots in E . Ukraine

Guardian removed the picture but not his Tweet . However , people around the world have it . The picture is downloadable using photoshop !

This is a disgrace.

You mentioned R Sector as a small right group. According the Wiki it

more than 10000 members . Respectable sources as Die Welt and

Del Mond called this group NEOFASCISTS.

You kind of did not mention Svoboda a group with clear fascist past

according Wiki. They control the Defence and Interior Ministries and de facto

the country.

Given this type of journalism who we the readers can trust to portray the

events let's say in Odessa ? The you tube videos of witnesses or

the mass media which did not mentioned that all the victims are separatists

and the R Sector burned first their camp of tents and then them - alive

Mr. Stern !

I was never a Russian friend and 20 years ago my favorite station was

Voice of America. Today I agree with Ron Paul we should not be there.

Andrew Goldsmidt
Andrew Goldsmidt

"Right now, no country is more bullish on the Internet than Russia." 

What does Russia mean in this context? Does it imply the certain state structures or statements of large swaths of the locals are backing their stance or special propaganda units or acts of controlled private companies? Where are the bases for such allegations? Just look at the coverage of the events in Syria. The reality and the images of the most Western myth-making internet resources are drastically at odds. The convenient facts are stretched and hyped but the uncomfortable ones are either overlooked or ignored..

If the separatists in Odessa had been on Washington's side, we'd still have seen the headlines in all major MSM - massacre. Media skipped a determinative set of the facts (pregnant woman strangled by an electric wire, men with multiple headshots, activists with burnt heads, hands and shoulders and lower body untouched by fire and etc ) that undermine the widespread version of the events to bolster the myth of the peaceful pro-europe protesters and angry pro-russian gunmen.  

http://ersieesist.livejournal.com/813.html

Nikolai Smetannikov
Nikolai Smetannikov

 "Right now, no country is more bullish on the Internet than Russia."

Wait! Maybe I'm not getting something, but, say, if Russia did block internet access to its citizens, then we could compare it to other countries that adhere to such practices and argue about the degree to which internet-freedom is being taken away. And in the end, your statement would just end up being inaccurate. 

BUT!

Russia does not do any for it. So congrats on a really bold statement (based on a distorted presentation of a law which you probably haven't read >:( ).

So much for objectivity. -_-


P.S. sorry, everyone. just couldn't resist it. 

Neve Rendell
Neve Rendell

The suggestion that the Right Sector provocateurs were less prepared for confrontation than the anti-Kiev people is simply not supported by any facts. This is really propaganda for the west masquerading as evengandedness. It concedes a few truths the better to conceal others. 

Doug Belanger
Doug Belanger

I was in Odessa on May 2 having lunch in the City Garden. We heard loud booms that sounded like cannons a long distance away, then a large crowd yelling and running down a nearby street. The booming sounds continued- turns out they were m 80s. Then I heard the cracking sound of small handguns. My date and our translator thought at first that they might be practicing for the Victory Day celebration but I guessed there was more to it given the situation in the east part of the country. As the street battle moved toward the park people started running away and just like a wave they came right back to see what was happening. By this time my date was getting nervous and decided to get a taxi and go out of the City Centre. I walked over to where the crowd was watching and caught a glimpse of the fighting- right in front of my apartment. I was worried that I would not be able to get my luggage and get out safely. We then went to the basement of the beer garden and watched the street battle on TV- Odessa Channel 1 had a camera right in the street. It looked as if the police were trying to keep the Russian and Ukrainian groups separated but everyone was breaking up the brick sidewalks and throwing them at the opposing side. We went to a nice seaside restaurant and people there were oblivious to what was happening downtown. We watched the tragic fire on her phone as the restaurant would not put the news on their TVs, they didn't want to disturb the atmosphere! On the way back we saw smoke from the fire any lots of police near the railway station. The street in front of my apartment was strewn with bricks but all was quiet. The next morning dozens of people were cleaning the street and repairing the sidewalks. There is a lot of finger pointing going on and its hard to say who started the mayhem. Many people were killed in spite of some heroic efforts to save them. One thing is for sure, the people of Odessa are nervous.

Michael McMorris
Michael McMorris

The bad news about the Twitter blitz is as NatGeo is saying-- numerous bots spewing RT.com, and others spewing other proUkr stuff, and both sides inserting deliberate disinformation, misinformation our poorly corroborated information, as well as speculation-- all being tweeted as truth.


However, if you read enough, quickly enough, a very evil picture unfolds.If you really care to know the truth, you can correlate stories, and especially videos taken from both sides. Not all sources are 100% corroborated, they can't be, the situation is moving very fast. But there is a lot of raw information, and there are credible sources within the proUkraine groups, and there is also unadorned raw information from within the proKremlin groups that is illustrative, and credible observations there.


For example, there are videos clearly showing there were gunmen in Odessa on the proKremlin side, and there were people dressed as policemen wearing armbands that signalled to the proKremlin streetfighters that they were sympathetic.  These "policemen" formed a cordon in front of proKremlin streetfighters.


There was video taken from the rooftops where these proKremlin groups had taken cover, setting up a barricade. From within this group was where random gunfire came from, going into the proUkraine side. Within that same proKremlin crowd someone took video of a person who was shooting what appeared to be an AK type weapon, a single shot at a time. He was plainly visible from the rooftop video and also in the video taken within that group at streetlevel.


Later, there was someone firing a pistol in front of the trade building, appearing to shoot at proKremlin people inside the building, this time from the proUkraine side. However, *this person resembled the earlier shooter within the proKremlin group*.


So there were people taking videos from both sides that seemed to raise a larger question: mainly, that there may be people inserted into this mess who are making it appear either side is using lethal force against the other in order to escalate the situation. 


It is an extraordinary situation: the official sources are biased, the mainstream news in Russia and Ukraine are biased, but these citizen reporters are very often illustrating the truth.



Kevin Newton
Kevin Newton

It is true that the advent of social media causes disparities in reporting on events. This would not be so prevalent but for the continued propaganda coming from what used to be mainstream impartial media interests. Modern media cannot be trusted to present news in an impartial manner which shows both sides of any conflict - none more so than in the United States. People therefore search for news and read both sides of a debate, and ultimately form their own opinion on events. Traditional media has brought this upon themselves, and lamenting this development while working for a mainstream media outlet tends to suggest a degree of self-interest. Media had their opportunity to inform the people impartially. Instead, they subjected people to endless propaganda designed to boost the official line of their own Government or, even worse, the views of their editorial staff or owners. The power of the internet means we no longer need to accept this status quo and can, instead, make up our own minds. Hence, we see the decline of printed media and, more and more, television and radio. To all reporters I say - if you cannot provide impartial and unbiased reporting, we shall seek it ourselves, and you have nobody to blame for this but yourselves.

Misha Mostov
Misha Mostov

See for yourself: the caption on the first photo claims that "pro-Russian activist pointing gun...".  WTF, there absolutely nothing on the photo that identifies masked man as pro-Russian!  I wonder how exactly the author has figured political views of this person?  This is article itself is propaganda: a mix of lies, truth, and fiction.

John Newcomb
John Newcomb

Russia has mounted a HUGE effort to control the internet and social media. Just look at all their assets  - all in several languages, such as Russia Today, Interfax, ITAR-TASS, Voice of Russia, RIA Novosti, etc, etc. Whats also important is that Russian media sources have linked with anti-establishment blogs within the US - blogs eager to be seen as not mainstream media, often including racist, anti-Obama messaging. 


in comparison, Ukraine has few internet esources, although with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, diaspora communities in US, Canada and Europe have been rallying to support the pro-Unity, EuroMaidan cause with new blogs, social media, etc. 


My impression is that where Ukraine media try to match Russian media but with unequal resources, the Ukraine media are not intentionally propagandistic but frankly can't be accurate trying to publish news quickly to challenge and confront the Russian propaganda efforts. 


Excellent review of the Russian propaganda effort on social media by Prof Myroslav Shkandrij:  http://www.ukrainianwinnipeg.ca/russian-propaganda-works-social-media/

Sherlock Holms
Sherlock Holms

@Danila Hiding  

They are now in a coalition of parties in power, so in addition to the Russian propaganda we also have Ukrainian new authorities propaganda.

Several ministers in current government represent the party of "Swoboda". The most prominent of them head of ministry of defense and Attorney general!

And head of "Pravy Sektor" - D.Yrosh, - close ally (former supporter) of current head of Ukrainian Intelligent Service!

Sherlock Holms
Sherlock Holms

@Danila Hiding  

In Odessa was so called "sotnya maidan" - one of the armored radicals groups that supports new authorities.


There are plenty evidence on the video, that caption "UPA"-members sign on they uniform.

Sherlock Holms
Sherlock Holms

@Samuel Orca  

Authorities send most of them to new formed "National Guard".

I doubt that they members quantity is about 10000, but not 300 like Kiev's propaganda sad.


Also i can confirm that a lot of disinformation came from PR Group "euromaidan"(twitter, facebook, etc.) - they presents (not only they) protesters in Odessa, that live on "Kulikovo Pole", in Odessa as "Russian Terrorists" - so the mod sympathized with the attackers (maidan members and radicals).  

But now, when 50 peoples were murder, but now, when 50 people were murdered, almost all of them local residents of Odessa Region. 

(Shame to all peoples that watch at this!)


Neve Rendell
Neve Rendell

@John Newcomb  Are you possibly serious?the entire western media is spewing out pro-Kiev propaganda 24/7. How dumb do you think we plebs out here are?

Kevin Newton
Kevin Newton

@John Newcomb  If you think Russia is controlling the internet and social media, perhaps you should also look at the United States. CNN, NBC, CBS, and Fox are all mouthpieces of the US Government. None have reported that the US directly caused the Maidan "protests" which started this fiasco in Ukraine. All use emotive terms such as terrorist to describe anybody fighting for something with which the US does not agree. Ukraine has its own major media news channels too, pushing their official views on the world - see http://www.kyivpost.com/ and http://un.ua/eng/. It pays to remember that the Ukranian "Government" is NOT a democratically elected Government, it usurped power through n organized armed conflict disguised as a "people's protest". Ukranian leaders now say Hitler was a "liberator" and people wonder why Russian-speaking people in Ukraine fear for their lives without a federal system being implemented to help them determine their own destiny. It pays to look at all sides of an event, rather than parrot the western side as portrayed through your mass media. That attitude helped to create the Vietnam War and other conflicts, where people reacted and formed opinions based upon propaganda and outright lies.

Sergii Z.
Sergii Z.

@Sherlock Holms You are wrong. Only General Attorney represents "Swoboda". The new Minister of Defence was recomended by former Minister of Defense (from Party of reigons) and he is not represent any political party.

Sherlock Holms
Sherlock Holms

(Shame to all peoples that watch at this!) - I mean that who just saw when peoples were burn in the building on 2nd may.

Michael McMorris
Michael McMorris

@Kevin Newton @John Newcomb  The Ukrainian Government as it stands now was formed by the legislature, who also unanimously agreed to oust the elected President. The legislature was elected by the people. 


Many European and other governments are formed this way, where the parliament selects the leadership. Canada, for one.


So don't be silly about that, take a look at the Yanukovych governments excessive graft, it's just ridiculous. They did the right thing to throw him out and set up the interim.


In terms of right wing nationalism, the Russians have their own right wing, many of whom seem to be involved with this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyxUnWVxY5U


Yeh, it may just be two guys talking, it's hard to know who to believe. But read about the guy who is involved in this conversation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barkashov and also read about Aleksandr Dugin and "Eurasianism". They are truly diabolical empire builders who don't want anything other than to have all of Europe as a satellite.


The dialogue is really very racist with these nationalists, every ethnic group within the dominant Russian schema has it's own characterization. Then there are those who seem themselves as "Kievan Rus" and the heir of true Russian culture, and that  the "Muscovy Rus" are merely an outpost of degenerate quasi-Mongols whose tactic is to make treaties and agreements only to break them when it is advantageous. 


So there was no "usurpation", there is plenty of really bad stuff going on, people infiltrating protests for the sole purpose of killing people on either side in order to foment chaos.

Danila Hiding
Danila Hiding

@Kevin Newton @John Newcomb  It definitely does mean being pro-Russian! You're either ignorant of the situation in Ukraine or intentionally lying.

Tim Shaw
Tim Shaw

@Tatiana Kovalev @Kevin Newton@John Newcomb

It's not in the corporate interest to report it....yet ;)

 When the plutocracy finds the need to either attack Mars or needs to boost weapon sales, the martians will be brought forward as a danger to the free world.

Sanctions will be placed on mars and we will begin destabilizing their economy slowly until we have bribed their plutocracy into taking loans from the IMF. As the debt peonage grows Mars will be forced to sell their state assets and allow our companies to take over their industry. With open free trade we can then ship in cheap labor to lower wages in their market and with the right marketing we can make them feel guilty at the same time.


good times are ahead....wait and see...

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