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Now You See It, Now You Don't: Rewriting The Ukraine Crisis

Did the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have a Buk antiaircraft missile system or not? They said they did...and then those Internet statements were gone.
Did the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have a Buk antiaircraft missile system or not? They said they did...and then those Internet statements were gone.

Knowing how and when to make a screen grab has suddenly become one of the basic skills of journalism.

On the afternoon of July 23, a Russian soldier named Vadim Grigoriyev posted on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte that he'd "been shelling Ukraine all night." He added a couple of photos of artillery pieces and spent shells.

But people looking for the post just a few hours later had to content themselves with screen grabs. The originals were gone as if they had never been.

Untangling the countless he said/she said disputes in the Ukraine crisis under conditions of an intense and coordinated disinformation campaign is hard enough. But it is even harder in the Internet age when information appears and disappears and reappears with the frustrating randomness of whack-a-mole.

And it isn't just individual accounts or posts that vanish into the ether.

Pro-Russian bloggers and the Kremlin news organ RT noticed that the BBC's Russian service had deleted a report from the site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash. RT speculated the report might have been "censored" by executives in London, while the BBC issued an explanation saying it was pulled because it did not meet BBC editorial standards.

"Therefore we are currently reworking the material so that it will fully meet the editorial standards of the BBC," the statement said. "We, of course, will make an announcement when the report is published again."

In the BBC report, which has been preserved on YouTube, several local residents tell the correspondent that they saw military aircraft flying around the ill-fated passenger jet just moments before it exploded. The Ukrainian government has denied there were any military planes in the area.

Fast-Moving Facts

The Russian Defense Ministry said on July 21 that a Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 fighter was tailing MH17 and may have shot it down. According to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, as soon as that assertion was made, someone revised the Wikipedia entry on the Su-25 to change its maximum combat altitude from 7,000 meters to 10,000.

Almost as soon as the Defense Ministry made its claims, experts began pointing out that the Su-25 is used exclusively for close ground support. Russian Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov, on his Twitter feed, reported he had contacted decorated Russian pilot Sergei Nefedrov, who told him the ministry's version is "complete nonsense."

The practice of revising Wikipedia entries has become so routine that earlier this month Twitter accounts were opened to track such changes coming from Russian government computers and Ukrainian government computers.

Disappearing Missiles

In recent days, a lot of the vanishing information concerns whether or not separatist militants and Russian mercenaries in eastern Ukraine possessed the sophisticated Russian-made Buk antiaircraft system that most experts believe brought down the Malaysian plane.

In the days before the incident, the insurgents were proudly claiming -- and Russian media were widely reporting -- that they did have Buk missiles and were using them to control the skies over Donetsk and Luhansk.

Tweets such as this one from the press office of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) now exist only in the undying memory of reposted screen grabs from the Internet.

The Russian television station LifeNews, which is widely believed to have deep contacts with Russian security services, took down a report from July 17 in which it showed smoke from the burning MH17 wreckage while reporting that the insurgents had shot down a Ukrainian An-26 military transport with a "missile." Hours later, after the downed passenger airliner had been identified, the station began reporting that Ukrainian military aircraft had shot it down and asserted without qualification that the separatists "do not have" Buk antiaircraft weapons.

The comments below the YouTube-preserved version of the LifeNews report attest to the heated debates that arise when the originals disappear and people with diametrically opposed views debate the authenticity of an archived version.

Swept Under The Rug

Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, de facto defense minister of the DNR, deleted a number of comments from his VKontakte page, including a July 17 post saying, "We just downed an An-26 near Tores." He also said, "We have seized missiles." Those comments and a video of the smoking MH17 were quickly removed.

"The Interpreter Magazine," a website funded by the Institute of Modern Russia that is tracking events in Ukraine closely, reported that on July 16, a man named Dmitry Tlustangelov posted to his VKontakte page video that he claimed showed Grad rocket complexes near the village of Gukovo firing into Ukraine from Russian territory.

"But by the end of the day it turned out that Tlustangelov's page was completely removed, with the familiar 'sad dog' that stands for a '404' at VKontakte," the website's report states ("404" is an Internet term meaning the sought document could not be found). It is not known if he removed the page himself or if VKontakte removed it.

Russia's RT network has also been in the scrubbing game. On July 13, the network broadcast an episode of a scandal-mongering program called "Truthseeker" that made outrageous claims of "genocide" by Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country.

According to one screen grab, the program claimed that Ukrainian government forces committed atrocities in a village called Saurovka: "They took the men alive and cut off the limbs. First their arms, then legs, then the heads. They did not cut the women -- they raped them."

Two days after it aired, RT pulled it and in a post on Twitter said it contained "uncorroborated information." The network apologized for broadcasting the piece.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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