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Russia: Initial Coverage of the Moscow Subway Bombings

Moscow's Monday morning routine was broken today by two subway suicide bombings [EN], which took the lives of at least 38 and wounded at least 70 people (many victims were students, aged below 40). The suicide explosions were carried out by two women allegedly affiliated with the North Caucasus rebels [EN]. Bloggers were among the first to spread the word about the tragic event, becoming the only stable media while major news websites stopped responding due to high traffic and TV channels were too slow to prepare any material on time. As Twitter user Krassnova noticed [RUS], Twitter hashtag #metro29 [RUS, EN] had 40 tweets per second while TV channels managed to prepare just 4 stories. In less than a couple of hours a website metro29.ru has been installed to cover the events.

One of the first bloggers to tell the news was Marina Litvinovich (aka LJ user abstract2001), an opposition blogger, who posted photos from Lubyanka subway station [RUS], where the first blast occurred:

Lobby of "Lubyanka" Subway Station, photo by abstract2001

Lobby of "Lubyanka" Subway Station, photo by abstract2001

Here's also a YouTube video of the evacuation of passengers from Park Kultury subway station, where the second explosion took place, posted by user baranovweb:

Temporary information and transportation collapse followed. As terrified Muscovites started to check if their friends or relatives were alive, cellphone network in the centre of Moscow went down. LJ user offnet complained that one of the reasons for the cell phone network blackout was a bureaucratic routine that required mounting an extra re-translator cell stations even in extreme situations. Habrahabr user rubyrabbit made a complete log of the major news website blackouts.

The Sokolnicheskaya (red) subway line was completely closed down due to investigations. Bloggers posted a video of the jam at Komsomolskaya station. At the same time people were cautious about using metro at all, even though other subway lines remained open. Popular blogger Nikolay Danilov (aka LJ user nlposted pictures of the crowds [RUS] of commuters marching to their workplaces:

Muscovites getting to their workplaces, photo by Nikolay Danilov (nl)

Muscovites getting to their workplaces, photo by Nikolay Danilov (nl)

TV channels were not only slow but have also been accused for the lack of adequate attitude in their coverage of the event. Another popular blogger, Anton Nossik (aka LJ user dolboeb), wrote [RUS]:

в 12:00 по Первому каналу начался плановый выпуск новостей. Не спеша, рассказывают о взрывах метро в Токио (1995), Баку, Париже, Дюссельдорфе, Лондоне, о соболезнованиях Януковича, депутатов Верховной Рады, Ангелы Меркель, передают заявление Бернара Кушнера. Затем скороговоркой дали recap, довольно чёткий, всех основных событий в Москве, длиной в полторы минуты: 35 погибших, 70 раненых, метро не ходит от Комсомольской до Спортивной, в центре города пробки, правительство требует усилить безопасность всех российских аэропортов. На минуту включили Тимура Серазиева с Лубянской площади, и тут же пошла реклама здоровой пищи, пепси-колы, какого-то Антистакса, шоколада «Вдохновение», сока «Любимый»,синтетических моторных масел Mobil1, средства для мытья окон, нового йогурта «Яблоко Мюсли», Афобазола от тревоги и напряжения, кофе Jakobs Monarch, хлопьев от Nestle с цельными злаками. Каждый из роликов был длинней прямого включения с Лубянки. После завершения семиминутной рекламной паузы досрочно началось часовое ток-шоу «Участок».

At 12:00, Channel One began their regular news programme. Without any hurry, they told about subway bombings in Tokio (1995), Baku, Paris, Dusselsdorf, London, about [the Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich]‘s condolences, about the condolences sent by [Ukrainian lawmakers], by Angela Merkel, Bernard Kushner. Then, very quickly, they gave a short report of all the major events in Moscow, one and a half minute long: 35 dead, 70 wounded, metro doesn't function from Komsomolskaya to Sportivnaya, there're traffic jams in the center, government demanding to increase security in all Russian airports. For a couple of seconds, they had [reporter] Timur Seraziev reporting live from Lubyanka Square, and then they turned on the advertisements of healthy food, Pepsi, some Antistax, chocolate Inspiration, juice The Loved One, synthetic oils Mobil1, window washing substance, new yogurt Apple Musli, Afobazol – a cure for anxiety and pressure, coffee Jacobs Monarch, wholegrain Nestle cornflakes. Each of these ads was longer than the live report from Lubyanka. After the end of a 7-minute ad break, they started an unscheduled talk-shaw “District.”

Both bloggers and news portals helped to fill the information vacuum. News portal lifenews.ru posted a photo gallery [RUS] that included pictures of the blown-up subway train cars [RUS]. LJ user seg_o posted pictures [RUS] from the area near Park Kultury metro station. Both BBC and the Guardian set up their liveblogging page - LiveBlog [EN] and Live Coverage [EN] – tracking every major event happening. LiveJournal opened up a special channel [RUS] to cover the topic. Below are some of the reports from those who survived the explosions:

oyolin:

Я работаю на Лубянке. В школе. Начинаю работать в 8. В 7.50 я приехала на Кузнецкий Мост. Хотела перейти на Лубянку, но там всё было в думу, людей не пускали. Вышла через Кузнецкий Мост. На Лубянской площаде сразу же всё перегородили, приехали спасатели. На работе до сих пор кризисная ситуация. Родители звонят, беспокоятся, мамы плачут. Это ужасно.

I work at Lubyanka. At school. I start at 8. At 7:50 I arrived to Kuznetsky Most (subway station). I wanted to switch to Lubyanka, but everything was in smoke there, people were not allowed in. I went out at Kuznetsky most. On Lubynka Square they blocked everything, rescue teams arrived. We have a critical situation here at work. Parents call, very nervous, moms are crying. This is horrible.

kotikeksik:

Время 14.40. Я только-только собрала в кучу голову. Меня перестало трясти, когда я встаю со стула, и я больше не плачу. Пытаюсь заставить себя поработать.

It's 14:40. I've just managed to pull myself together. I no longer tremble when I get up from the chair, I don't cry anymore. I'm trying to make myself work.

davete:

Выхожу на Парке Культуры. Поднимаюсь уже было к выходу. Рядом идут сотрудники милиции. К ним обращается какая-то женщина:
-Что случилось то?
-Ой, да авария какая-то, технические причины.
В эту же секунду прогремел взрыв.
Противоположный от моего поезд, по направлению к станции Кропоткинская.
Взорвался где-то в середине.
Людей было не много, давки не было. Но взрыв очень мощный. Не сомневаюсь, эта бомба – военного стандарта.

I was on my way out at Park Kultury (subway station). Was about to exit the subway. Police officers are walking next to me. A woman asks them:
- What's happened?
- Well, some accident, technical reasons.
And at this very moment an explosion roared. On the train going in the opposite direction, towards Kropotkinskaya station. Exploded somewhere in the middle. There were not so many people, no stempede. But the explosion was very powerful. No doubt this bomb is a military-standard bomb.
  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia Catherine Fitzpatrick

    I’m going to put forth a thesis that I’m sure many avid and eager Russian and international bloggers and Twitterers are not going to like but it has to be said: social media failed in covering the Moscow metro bombing, and continues to fail.

    Of course there are no shortage of comments and tweets. But the reality is, *the same few pictures which don’t tell anything but an official narrative* are being regurgitated everywhere, and little but *the official narrative* is being reiterated.

    Citizens’ coverage isn’t leading to independent investigation and even commentary; it’s retweeting what the prosecutor and the mayor are saying, with the exception of a few extreme opposition figures and supporters saying “it was an inside job” without any actual investigation.

    The way this story has unfolded has really been an epiphany for me, despite my huge belief in the power of citizens’ media: I’m seeing that in a country where the state controls the media, and where the society is heavily discouraged from independent coverage (killings of journalists and lawyers, shut down of websites), social media can’t magically compensate just by providing a more lively and quick stream of “news” and commentary. Social media is only as good as the society that can wield it.

    Note that not only did the authorities shut down cell phones, some parsing of Live Journal blog entries by Illarionov and others raises questions about even the early seemingly independent citizens’ comments, which themselves may have been a calculated set-up. And authorities completely shut down escalator, exits, and traffic, so even very intrepid news-gatherers might have had trouble trying to do anything but wave their phone camera over a huge crowd.

    Bloggers in fact *did not* “help to fill the information vaccum, once you get over the ecstasy of seeing a lot of them. They dutifully reprinted Interfax — hundreds of them — without any commentary of supplement from live coverage of their own. For hours, they reprinted one mistaken eyewitness report about a “third bomb”.

    Livenews.ru photos, however fast and grisly, don’t help to answer the central question: was this an attack made by two female bombers in black scarves, or a remote detonation, or something else? None of the tweeting and blogging, as far as I can see, has a single eyewitness about the bombers themselves, and only retweets of what officials are saying. It is more than likely that the bombers were terrorists from the North Caucasus, and yet social media has *not independently* made that case.

    I’m making my conclusion for the sake of debate. I’m telling you what I’m seeing after reading hundreds of Russian-language and English-language tweet and blogs. If you have links that do something more than provide very superficial subjective accounts of smoke and carnage, or links that do more than replay Interfax, Russia Today, Moscow Times which are dutifully quoting only officials, please provide them.

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia/2010/03/social-media-fails-in-covering-moscow-metro-blast.html

    • http://altzgamer.ru Alexey Sidorenko

      Dear Catherine,

      thank you for your comment. Let me reply to it.

      First of all, words like “fail” or “win” lead us to the wrong direction. Covering tragic events is not a competition. There might be some flaws, some drawbacks, but some good things bloggers did.

      So let’s audit bloggers’ actions. On March 29, bloggers and twitterers:
      1. Disseminated information about the event, while major websites were down or in mobile mode, and TV channels were both slow and ignorant.
      2. Brought worldwide attention to the terrorist attack. #Moscow became the top Twitter hashtag.
      3. Made some citizen content, which was present in the post. Pictures mostly pictures and scarce videos.

      Of course, you can disagree with that but that’s what I call “filling the information vacuum”. Blogs were efficient, especially in comparison to TV channels. Look, Livejournal’s usage raised 25-30 percent in one day (http://internet.cnews.ru/news/line/index.shtml?2010/03/30/384799), doesn’t it show the demand for blog content? TV-expert view on the coverage: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1345737

      What bloggers didn’t do:
      1. Provide any other content besides videos and pics.
      2. Didn’t provide any investigation/alternative theories of what happened
      3. were not critical to the information they were given from the official sources.

      Well, some of this is true. BUT.
      1. Direct witnesses of the terrorist attacks are either dead or lie in the hospital. And I’m more than sure that for those who survived the bombings giving a Twit or updating their blog isn’t a first priority.
      2. The subway stations were closed right after the bombings so there was no physical possibility to make an independent investigation. Besides that people need time for any kind of investigation.
      3. You might have a wrong image of the Twitter/Blogosphere. There’s lots of retwitting, copy-pasting, fake LJ-users, spamlogs and so on. All of these things make the analysis of the RuNet pretty challenging. But it doesn’t mean, all RuNet is just a bunch of copy-pasters of Interfax, Rian and so on. No, you just have to know which bloggers to read. Especially it’s true for Twitter, where there’s lots of useless information garbage.
      4. Alternative theories started to appear from the first hours. I advise you to check such LJ-users as abstract2001, nl, rusanalit, alliruk, barouh, g_golosov, v_milov, grey_dolphin, shirly_noclaf – all of them were writing not about the bombings themselves but about the alternative reasons of the bombings and

      consequences for the Russian society and political system. And these are not
      Speaking on the technical side of the explosion I would advise this new theory:
      http://schriftsteller.livejournal.com/

      I’m more than sure that alternative version will come. THere will be more of them. Of course there’s always a place for perfection, and social could do better. Basically, if this case was a “fail” can you provide an example of social media’s victory?

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/Gregory.Asmolov Gregory Asmolov

      Dear Catherine,

      I totally disagree with you.
      You have to have a right expectations from social media. Not only in Russia, but in any Western country the ability of Internet users to investigate terror attack is close to zero. You can’t expect bloggers being an alternative CIA or FSB.
      There are two another major function of bloggers:
      1. A source of alternative informayion. You can see in Russian blogosphere dozens of bloggers who were close to the place of attacks and they write about what they have seen. Indeed, there are a lot of reposting, but there are also relatively many original content including pictures from people who actually were there or have friends who were there.
      2. Blogosphere is alternative platfrom for discussion. You see a lot of people critisizing authorities and debating the official versions that published in major traditional media.

      The main platform of blogosphere in this case is information overload. It makes the content consumers to be more responsible in ways they access information. We have to have be an editors as information consumers, since there are no editors who do this job for us. But claiming that Russian blogosphere is not valuable source of information is ignoring the compexed information reality.
      Btw, GV is a platform that aims to reduce this problem and bring valuable social media based content.

    • http://altzgamer.ru Alexey Sidorenko

      Dear Catherine,

      please find below the witness’ report:
      http://karpusha.livejournal.com/393201.html

      basically it gives some information that the police knew that terrorists were in the train.

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  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Alexei,

    I put my response on my blog due to your moderation here.

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia/2010/03/reply-to-alexei-sidorenko-of-global-voices.html

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  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Dear Gregory,

    Disagree with me all you like — but then…disagree with your government more.

    The point is, if you read my blog entry on this, I point out how bloggers like Daily Kos *are* an alternative CIA or FSB. They have performed amazing things, even without using the Freedom of Information Act (which you are supposed to have in Russia, too). They find out stuff by being *curious* and not mindlessly pasting and retweeting like parrots or becoming defensive and sullen if criticized.

    Of course bloggers can — and do — perform alternative investigations, and they do this not just in the U.S., where they can be expected to do so in a more free society with less consequences, they do this in Belarus, where, for example, on charter97.org you can see that independent news gathers don’t just get pictures of an oil fire from a citizen reporter — because they’ve built up the credibility and network to do such a thing (http://www.charter97.org/en/news/2010/3/30/27729/); they go and get the independent, alternative story of a controversial court trial that the official press isn’t covering (http://www.charter97.org/en/news/2010/3/29/27688/) — and much more.

    In Uzbekistan, activist and emigre sites like ferghana.ru don’t just sit on their hands accepting the official version of how 147 babies died of HIV/AIDS, they track down and publish a video in fact made — and kept hidden — by prosecutors, and they run their own alternative interviews of relatives (http://enews.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=2611)

    And frankly in Russia, too, there are citizens who “behave like the CIA” and perform alternative investigations of massacres, such as in Chechnya — it’s just that they aren’t “bloggers” but a different category of people, human rights activists (like this one: http://www.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/caucas1/index.htm)

    So I totally disagree with your take on this — you seem to think bloggers are just a kind of boutique class of commentators with a little more verve.

    As for the metro attacks, I didn’t see dozens, I saw two — and I looked hard. That’s why I made my statement about this. And it’s a statement about *the failure of social media* in a context of *a lack of media freedom due to state control*; not an indictment of bloggers who maybe cannot be bolder without reprisals or who really don’t have the habits and culture to “behave like an FSB”.

    Now you’ve swerving off to make another point. You’re saying “Oh, the blogosphere is great. It’s a platform for criticizing the authorities and debating the official versions.”

    Well, again, as I’ve said to Alexey — you’re setting the bar awfully low, and letting your own role be reduced to a kind of Greek chorus — lamenting when the hero laments, laughing when the hero laughs. And the hero is the state, not the people. Why? Because you don’t pursue the gathering of alternative fact for alternative — and even false — hypotheses. You are in reactive mode.

    I don’t think the Russian blogosphere suffers from information overload or even too many pictures of people’s cats. It suffers from a load of repasting without commentary. It suffers from a lack of critical, aware commentary. I don’t blame the consumer and demand he be more discriminating. I say that we need to look deeper at why there aren’t more critical bloggers, more widely read critical bloggers.

    And now you go *completely* over the cliff, into that territory that Russian debaters so love to go into, one of deep inferiority complex and neadekvatnost’. You make an utterly false claim that I said “the Russian blogosphere is not a valuable source of information”. Nonsense. I said “social media failed covering this event — it’s not a magic tool” — I didn’t say “the blogosphere is a failure”.

    I go to it often for both work and personal interest. It has what it has. It doesn’t denigrate the LJ community or Twittering Russians to say social media failed this time, as it did other times, and starkly revealed once again your unfree situation.

    Complex information reality? Again, we are being pushed on to that hard high road of “Russia’s special path”. Why? The more you can come to see that you are one more country with many similar problems of other people, the better for us all.

    Global Voices should stop moderating comments. What are they afraid of? It is quite possible to post-censor if you actually find some sort of incitement of imminent action or actual malicious libel. Are you supposed to go by Russia’s press law rules here?

    Let me point out again that the best way to have this debate is with links. Alexei put forth a list of users some of whom I hadn’t read and was interested to read. But your social media footprint is what it is. It stand, in Russian, on Twitter, on LJ, on Facebook, for everyone to see so it’s not about “not knowing enough”.

    Again, this is not somehow a cause for invoking nationalistic breast-beating. It’s a call to become more curious, and ask why, in a major capital of the world, with yet another terrorist bombing in a busy subway, with intelligent, working, relatively affluent people with cell phones and computers, the TV is silent, and the blogosphere is re-pasting scraps…

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  • http://www.solanasaurus.com/ Solana Larsen

    Note from the moderator: Sorry for the inconvenience, but the reason we pre-moderate comments is because we receive enormous amounts of comment spam and trackback spam which are beyond the capabilities of our spam filter.

  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Solana: then get a better spam filter or have site registration. It’s not really a good excuse.

    The site opendemocracy.net for example must have tons more posts than you do, and there is no pre-moderation there.

  • http://www.solanasaurus.com/ Solana Larsen

    Thank you for the advice.

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