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Russia, the Web, and the Subway Bombings

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 31 2010

Credit: abstract 2001

In the hours after a pair of horrific subway bombings in Moscow left 39 people dead and many more wounded, Russian state-owned television played cooking shows and makeover programs, writes Time's Carl Schreck. Television officials pled audience -- that only uninterested housewives would be home at that hour -- and appropriateness, arguing that given that the two attacks were designed to incite terror, airing footage of the attacks in the immediate aftermath would only help their violent cause. And so, writes Alexey Sidorenko on Global Voices, people turned to the web:

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

In the comments on Sidorenko's post, there's the beginnings of a fascinating debate about whether the social media response to the bombings added much to the situation. Here's a taste:

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.

...

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.

"Social media is only as good as the society that can wield it," is provocative, but there's an argument to be made for the idea that getting the hang of citizen reporting takes practice. It may well get better over time, but it might be a bumpy journey. There's also an argument to be made that, no matter how you slice it, a subway bombing in Moscow is news, and that a "media" that fails to convey to its audience the very fact that it happened isn't much deserving of the name.

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