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Twitter Panic On The Streets Of Minsk

Police officers check passengers at the entrance to the Kamennaya Gorka metro station in Minsk today
Police officers check passengers at the entrance to the Kamennaya Gorka metro station in Minsk today
It's not exactly au fait these days to criticize Twitter and social networks for being a place where rumors flourish, especially since the so-called "Andy Carvin effect" in curating content from the Middle East protests.

But this morning in Belarus, which yesterday suffered a devastating attack on its subway killing 12 people and injuring over 200 more, showed the role of social networks in helping to spread rumors.

Word came this morning of a second bomb attack on a bus (quickly denied by the Interior Ministry.)

Later in the day, Belarusian law enforcement detained three people for spreading rumors. This from ITAR-TASS:

Belarus law-enforcement bodies detained three persons who had been spreading "provocative rumors" in order to cause panic in the republic's capital, an official at the Security Council's secretariat said on Tuesday.

"Three Minsk residents were detained and placed in a pre-trial detention centre for spreading through the Internet the false rumors alleging acts of terror in the Belarusian capital, such as bus, car and railway stations blasts," the official said.

Secret service has information on another ten disseminators of false information, to which the necessary measures will be applied, he added.

I spoke to a broadcaster in our Belarus Service who confirmed the story, saying that the messages had spread through Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal (and indeed via phone and word of mouth). This was a typical Facebook message (translated), from a friend of a colleague:

Somebody has any info what's happening in the city? A friend called and said smth happened to Nr. 100 line bus.... Twitter writes about a possible sabotage near Moscow Bus station.

#minsk there were calls w unconfirmed news about an explosion on a bus at Moscow Station #twiby Who knows anything, please write back...

(After a while, when it became apparent there was no second blast, there were also plenty of people on Twitter calling on people to stop spreading rumors.)

Flat, decentralized networks are great for enabling a broad group of people to tell their stories and share information, but, as they become more popular, they are also increasingly vulnerable to rumors and disinformation.

In terms of disinformation, the Belarusian authorities are pretty adept (I'm not suggesting that the rumors were their work). Back in December on the day of the controversial presidential election, presumably some pro-government actors attacked opposition sites and then mirrored them. The mirror sites included a lot of disinformation, including the wrong locations for opposition rallies that night.

Of course, what happened today might have just been an understandable mass panic instead of deliberate disinformation. Regardless, it's a potentially interesting case study of how social media can help disseminate false information, especially in times of heightened panic.