As the news of the Moscow airport bombing started coming in today morning, I was glued to... Twitter again, following the latest developments, feeling useless, and well, having a déjà-vu - quite literally - going back to the metro bombings last year. Given all that I observed, I was going to write a blog post, but as I went back to re-read my reaction to the March 2010 events, I feel like most of it would be a repetition: the way Russia Today TV (RT) presented the story, RT's footage (but not the "framing") that was picked up by almost all major foreign media, the whole "terrorist" vs. "insurgent/rebel" debate, some frustrating incompetence by and rhetoric from both, some of the American media as well as RT itself, conspiracy theories, implications for Russia-US relations, and the significance of social media...
Instead of rewriting it all, I'll focus on just some of the major differences that I, personally, observed.
Firstly, social media. Twitter, in particular - with the hashtag #domodedovo - exploded with second-to-second updates, discussions, theories, suggestions, panic, skepticism, criticism, and... general horror. As the news trickled in and panic swelled, there was general frustration with the mainstream TV channels (still Russia's most popular news source), which failed to provide coverage. Tweets along the lines of "today is the day when TV officially died in Russia," were common.
It was through Twitter that the news of the outrageous taxi fare hikes spread (some cab drivers were said to be charging as much as $500 per ride!), mobilizing volunteers with cars to go pick up the already-traumatized people from the Domodedovo Airport (those who needed rides were encouraged to post requests using #dmdhelp and #helpcar hashtags; many tweets also featured actual phone numbers). In a situation where the cellphone service literally died, Twitter seemed to provide a great communication channel...
The very first footage after the blast, as well as some photos, "went viral" thanks to Twitter, too. (Interesting: many of the very first photos - pretty horrid - seem to have been taken off "Twitpic". Wonder, why exactly...?!) The following video was posted on YouTube about two hours after the blast itself, and was picked up - first by Russia Today TV and then everyone else - within minutes. By the time of this writing, it has been viewed about 1,681,000 times. (Discretion advised: pretty gruesome content...)
In terms of Twitter, I would only add that the greatest RuNet tweeter - @MedvedevRussia - remained mostly silent throughout the day, just "re-tweeting" several notes from @KremlinRussia where his staff quoted him expressing his condolences, making reassurances to take tough measures, and announcing the delay of his trip to Davos. Also, interestingly enough, NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted about his "deeply disturbed" state:
"Deeply disturbed about the terror attack in Moscow and I strongly condemn it. NATO and Russia stand together in the fight against terrorism."
At the same time, I think it's worthwhile to point out the Facebook activity of the American Embassy in Moscow. Not only did the Embassy's page highlight the statements of support from Obama and Clinton as they were made, but it also provided several links to major news updates and, most importantly, contact and inquiry information (with various links and numbers for emergency and other help lines). Way to go on public diplomacy!
Meanwhile, there is absolutely NO information about the attacks on the website of the Russian Embassy in the U.S. (neither has there been anything special on DC's Russian Cultural Center's page - except for embedded updates' feed from RIA Novosti). Obviously, they decided RT and all other news agencies would do the job. Don't know, though, what they were thinking about all those in the U.S. who needed information (Russians, but also others).
But well, perhaps that's also partially why RT's coverage proved valuable to the foreign media, yet again.
The interesting change this year, however, is the lack of hesitance to "embrace" the word "terrorist" when talking about the potential perpetrators. Of course, CBS News is still to learn the difference between North and South Caucasus (OK, I do have the right to be demanding here), and yet, some of the coverage was pretty in-depth and multi-dimensional (and here, please note CNN's concern with oil prices...). It is also interesting to see the prevailing focus on the impact of this attack on Russia's image abroad, especially with regard to security while hosting the Winter Olympics and the World Cup... Sad, and needs no further comment.
One last thought I'll add to this haphazard piece: my outrage about some of RT's own rhetoric and demonstrated "insecurity complex" in terms of the West. Not only did the loquacious Peter Lavelle keep aggressively demonizing "the West", and their misunderstanding of Russia and her need for security (he was in the Moscow studio, providing non-stop commentary - live - as the news was coming in all through the evening, Moscow time), but RT also hosted Webster Tarpley, providing more than 10 minutes of airtime for his conspiracy tales.
I know there are people out there who would argue that there might be a degree of truth to whatever they are suggesting; and yet, under the circumstances, I do find all this talk inappropriate. I also I think it was a pretty big mistake for RT to so bluntly demonize what is essentially its primary "target audience". Given the limited information (in general) and the non-stop coverage provided by RT throughout the day, I am sure there were many more people watching their programming tonight. And instead of providing more information about the actual events, the aftermath, or even the Caucasus region/history itself, RT chose to go with conspiracies. I am ready to bet that not only did they lose their audience's attention - so valuable these days! - but they also shattered whatever credibility they had earned throughout the day.
Bad public diplomacy, RT. Bad...
UPDATE [Tue, 1/25/2011; 11:30AM]:
- The number of killed has, fortunately, remained unchanged. ITAR-TASS reports that at least 110 were injured, with "40 in very serious condition, 49 in serious condition, and 14 in satisfactory condition". Voice of Russia reports that among the foreigners killed there were 2 UK nationals, 1 German, 1 Bulgarian, 1 Kyrgyz, 1 Tajik, 1 Uzbek and 1 Ukrainian.
- John Beyrle, the American Ambassador to Russia who blogs in Russian, expressed his condolences to the friends and family of those killed and injured, and reiterated Obama's message of solidarity with the Russian people. (GOOD!)
- All silent on the Russian MFA's digital front. Even the official website of the Foreign Ministry itself doesn't carry any information about the event. (BAD!)
- Meanwhile, the blame-game has already started in Moscow.