Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine learning social media 'difficult to control'

Separatists in eastern Ukraine have been using social media for propaganda purposes since the conflict broke out in early 2014. But with the recent downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet in the area, the rebels are discovering that social media can have its downside, too.

Some posts by groups fighting in eastern Ukraine suggest links to MH17 crash

A pro-Russian rebel speaks on the phone in eastern Ukraine earlier this month. Comments posted on Russian social networking sites before the wreck of flight MH17 was positively identified may have inadvertently provided proof the rebels were responsible. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

Since news broke two weeks ago that a Malaysian Airlines jet was likely brought down by a ground-to-air missile in eastern Ukraine, all eyes have been on the pro-Russian rebels who control the territory.

At this point, there isn’t much hard evidence linking them to the tragedy, in which nearly 300 people — most of them Dutch citizens — died en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17.

But the rebels are active on social media, and comments posted on Russian social networking sites before the wreck of flight MH17 was positively identified may have inadvertently provided proof they were responsible.

Experts say the rebels' online conduct shows how social media can both help and hinder a political cause.

"What’s happening in the eastern Ukraine really makes it clear that the smartphone in the hand is as important as a submachine gun,” says Charlie Beckett, director of the London School of Economics’ journalism think tank and head of its communications department.

Beckett says the rebels may be learning a tough lesson about online propaganda.

What’s happening in the eastern Ukraine really makes it clear that the smartphone in the hand is as important as a submachine gun.- Charlie Beckett, director, journalism program at the London School of Economics

“I think the mistake that was made over MH17, obviously the ghastly tragedy of the shooting down itself, but the blunder around it – they’ve now been hoisted by their own social media petard.”

On July 17, about an hour before mainstream media began reporting that the plane that crashed was likely the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, a post appeared on – and subsequently disappeared from – a page run by rebels in Donetsk on the popular Russian social networking site VKontakte.

“In the area of Torez, we just shot down an AN-26 airplane, it’s lying around somewhere behind the ‘Progress’ mine,” the post, which was written in Russian, read.

“We did warn after all – not to fly in our ‘sky.’ And here is a video confirmation of yet another ‘birdfall.’ The birdie fell on a heap of waste rock, did not touch the residential area. Civilians did not get hurt."

Identifying the plane

But the fuselage and cargo that rained down in fiery pieces on a sunflower field near the tiny Ukrainian village of Grabavo wasn’t from an AN-26 or an SU. It belonged to MH17.

A screen capture of the post that appeared on a rebel-run social networking page boasts that the separatists shot down a Ukrainian military jet around the same time and location as the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crashed. (VKontakte/Radio Free Europe)

Military experts around the world said it would have taken a very powerful ground-to-air missile, such as the Russian-designed BUK, to shoot down such a large plane flying at a cruising altitude.

In the aftermath of the crash, the rebels have insisted they didn’t have access to such a weapon. But on June 29, a Twitter account claiming to be the communications arm of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) allegedly tweeted to the contrary.

“Self-propelled anti-aircraft BUK missile systems on the territory of anti-aircraft missile regiment PVO A1402 taken under control of DNR,” the tweet read.

But the original tweet, like the initial VKontakte post, was gone by the time most mainstream media went looking for it.

The pro-Russian rebels have been using social media actively since the Ukrainian governance crisis turned bloody this spring. They aren’t the first to exploit online networks for propaganda, but they may be the first to feel the blowback from their posts during a conflict they’re still fighting, Beckett says.

Using social media for clues

While their alleged social media activity doesn’t prove they shot down the plane or that they had the capacity to do so, it doesn’t prove they didn’t, either.

“It’s circumstantial. And if you like, social media has now become part of circumstances,” Beckett says.

“When we’re looking for clues, we’re as likely now to find it on social media as we are to find it in the real world. And the difference is it’s much harder to cover your tracks on social media, because other people can capture those tweets. They can screenshot them. They can find the internet cache where they are.”

The VKontakte page where the post about shooting down Ukrainian military jets was allegedly made has more than 161,000 followers. The Twitter account that boasted the rebels had acquired a ground-to-surface missile has more than 42,000.

The VKontakte page purports to belong to rebel commander Igor Girkin, better known as Strelkov, which translates loosely in English to mean "rifleman." But Russian internet forums suggest the page is not actually administered by Strelkov himself.

Gregory Asmolov, a scholar studying how Russia uses the internet, points out that who actually manages the account becomes almost irrelevant if mainstream media consider it to be a credible source.

A screen grab of the post about shooting down the Ukrainian military jet that was allegedly deleted from Strelkov’s VK page was featured on regional media, including Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. It was also shown across the United Kingdom on BBC and referenced by CBC.

“Strelkov’s account on VKontakte is very influential from the point of view that there are a lot of people quoted," Asmolov says. Strelkov’s page has links to rebel-produced videos, photos and press conferences held by the group's leaders.

Are the Russians coming?

Asmolov says some of the rebels are actually experts in political science and online propaganda from Russia.

A screen capture of the tweet that appeared in Russian on a rebel-run Twitter account claiming the rebels had acquired a ground-to-air surface missile. (Twitter/BBC)

Despite the fact that most major media outlets in Russia are state-run and social networks are monitored, Asmolov believes the rebels are becoming frustrated with what they interpret as a lack of direct support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“You can use social media to send messages, in particular, if you see the internal channels are not so successful,” Asmolov says. “But at the same time, we know that social media is something extremely difficult to control.”

On May 7, Putin called on rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk to postpone their planned independence referendums until after the Ukrainian general election on May 25. But over the next four days, rebel leaders continued to post on social media that they were preparing sites for voting and on May 11, both Donetsk and Luhansk became self-proclaimed republics.

Margot Light, an international relations expert in Russian foreign policy from London School of Economics, says she believes the rebels in eastern Ukraine likely had Russian encouragement. She says she believes they even had Russian arms.

“But I think that it is no longer the case that Putin gives an order and the rebels obey that order,” Light says. “I think it’s politically convenient to assume that in the west, but actually, it defies rational analysis.”

While the Russians likely weren’t opposed to the idea of annexing Crimea after the government fell, they didn’t necessarily want "this helter-skelter movement toward the breakup of Ukraine itself," Beckett says.

Everyday warfare

In many ways, the rebels have been using social media just like everybody else does, Beckett says.

“You tell people what you’re doing. You make comments on stuff. And sometimes you just get very, very excited. And I think that’s the reason why there’s been some blowback for them,” Beckett says. “They weren’t using it in an entirely disciplined way.”

Some of the most popular posts on Strelkov’s page are the ones updating followers on the rebels’ military operations.

For example, on July 28, just before 1 a.m. Moscow time, they posted an overview of ongoing combat in rebel-held territories. It received more than 1,700 responses.

Essentially, the rebels’ social media feeds offer a play-by-play of their actions and a glimpse into their habits.

While Beckett says providing a running commentary in the battlefield could be seen as good for morale and rallying support, it also has some dangers, not least in giving away some of its positions.

Furthermore, he says the controversial posts from the rebels’ accounts potentially linking them to the MH17 disaster are going to change the way both militia and state armies use social media.

“People will be looking at this as one of the seminal moments where that interface between new technology and communication and media in the military went through a transition phase,” Beckett says.

He says if not for the MH17 disaster and the online evidence potentially linking the rebels to it, their use of social media has actually been quite effective.

“I think it has been a really good way for them to mobilize, to organize, to propagandize, to make sure their supporters are really excited and showing solidarity with them,” Beckett says. “It’s given them a voice internationally as well.”

While the immediacy and accessibility of the smartphone is changing modern warfare, Beckett says rapid and constant communication is not without its dangers.

While Russia has maintained that the rebel fighters have all gone to Ukraine of their volition, Radio Free Europe has screen-captured posts from Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine boasting about the weapons they have been using to fight the Ukrainian army.

“Inevitably, the human factor counts. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be too much in a rush," he says.

"People like journalists are coming to terms with that. They’re getting better at handling the mobility of communications and the speed of communications. The same lessons are being learned by official and unofficial military."