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Russia Deployed Trolls to Cover Up the Murder of 298 People

thedailybeast: The bodies had hardly stopped falling from the sky on July 17, 2014, when the trolls of Russia’s Internet Research Agency went into action.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had just been shot down over eastern Ukraine, and the same IRA operation Vladimir Putin would use to influence the U.S. presidential election two years later went into overdrive, pumping out conspiracy theories to exculpate Moscow’s murderous clients.

The Boeing 777 passenger jet was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board, including 80 children, when it was blown out of the air above territory held by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Two-thirds of the passengers were from the Netherlands. It was a tragedy that affected many Dutch people in the way Americans had experienced 9/11.

Now exhaustive research by two Dutch journalists, Robert van der Noordaa and Coen van de Ven, published in the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, shows precisely the way the Russian trolls worked to shift blame for the massacre and create a dense fog of conspiracy theories to obscure the facts.

Six days after the mid-air explosion, the Dutch government declared a national day of mourning. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, along with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, were present at the airfield when the first 40 caskets arrived, to be conveyed in a procession of hearses throughout Amsterdam, as mourners lined the streets. Van de Ven recalls that “a very rare sense of unity erupted within the Netherlands.” But that unity, thanks largely to the fallout from the conspiracy theories advanced by Russian trolls, soon became frayed.

Van der Noordaa and van de Ven analyzed 9 million IRA tweets covering the period 2014-2017 that were released by Twitter in October 2018 as part of an effort to elucidate the Russian role in the U.S. presidential election.

They report that in the 24 hours after the MH17 crash the IRA posted at least 65,000 tweets, mainly in Russian, that blamed the Ukrainian government in Kiev for the disaster. Altogether, 111,486 tweets about MH17 were posted by the IRA in just three days, from July 17 through 19. (By comparison, in the 10-week period leading up to the November 2016 elections, the IRA accounts posted 175,993 tweets.) According to the two journalists: “Never before or after did the trolls tweet so much in such a short period of time.”

At the beginning, there was confusion among the trolls: An early tweet claimed that a Ukrainian plane had been shot down and that the rebels were responsible, which would “trigger a new series of sanctions against Russia.” But the blame was quickly switched to Kiev, with the hashtag “Poroshenko [the Ukrainian president] we want an answer!”

By the next morning, July 18, all the tweets were accusing Kiev, with three hashtags: #КиевСбилБоинг (“Kiev shot Boeing”), #ПровокацияКиева (“KievProvocation”) and #КиевСкажиПравду (“KievTelltheTruth”). The onslaught of tweets ended abruptly on the morning of July 19, after which the trolls continued to write about MH17, but with much less frequency and without the hashtags.

What is remarkable about the three-day tweetstorm is that the trolls actually wrote their own tweets instead of limiting themselves to retweeting or copying other extremist tweets, as was the case with other international incidents. They also composed their own stories on the LiveJournal platform, a popular Russian blog website, and then shared them on Twitter.

One particularly popular blog, written by one Katya Timofeeva, described a Spaniard named “Carlos,” who allegedly worked for air traffic control in Kiev and had spotted two fighter jets near the MH17 plane. (Although Carlos was later exposed as a fraud, Putin actually cited his story as evidence of Ukrainian culpability in a 2016 interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone.) After Timofeeva shared her story on Twitter, it was retweeted by trolls close to a hundred times within six minutes.

As van de Ven and van der Noordaa point out, Russian-concocted theories like the one about Ukrainian fighter jets have stubbornly persisted in the Netherlands to this day, embraced by activist citizen journalists and even ordinary citizens, despite the irrefutable findings of the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team (JIT) that the plane was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.

The JIT used intercepted recordings of telephone conversations by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, who discussed the delivery of the missile, videos and photographs on social networks, research of the Bellingcat investigators, eyewitness accounts, forensic examinations of the plane’s debris, and simulation modeling of the explosion of the plane to establish beyond doubt that Flight MH17 was shot down from Ukrainian rebel territory by a Russian 9M38 BUK missile launched from a BUK-TELAR self-propelled system, brought from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in Kursk.

Source: Published by thedailybeast

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