Social media have emerged as a key meeting place for Ukrainian rebels to share updates, recruit militiamen and win support.
Hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed, the world’s news media were abuzz over a since-deleted posting on the hugely popular Russian social network VKontakte, or VK. It purportedly showed Ukrainian rebels bragging about taking down what they had thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane.
The page has more than 141,000 followers and claims to present comments from Igor Strelkov, the military commander for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) separatist group. Half an hour after the crash, one post boasted: “We just downed an An-26 near Torez” and added, “We had warned them” not to fly in the area.
The comments were widely attributed to Mr. Strelkov, but a subsequent posting emphasized that the page collects from open sources and the information was from a local forum where militias post. One post with a banner marking it as coming from Mr. Strelkov himself says a commission is free to investigate the crash site, in DNR-controlled territory, and “no one will prevent that.” But others have called the page a fake.
The confusion shows the huge local appetite for news and images from the war zone, but also the difficulty of knowing where the information comes from, leaving many turning to pro-Russian aggregator sites like rusdozor.ru as well.
VKontakte, which is likened to a Russian version of Facebook, has more than 60 million daily users, and 11 million-plus accounts in Ukraine. It gained popularity among Russian political activists looking to organize, but has recently spawned numerous groups catering to Ukraine’s separatist, pro-Russian audience.
An open VK page called “Anti-maidan Donetsk Donbass” has been a gathering point, with 11,270 followers. It regularly posts news bulletins on combat and casualties with video of destruction and dead bodies, labelling Ukrainian military forces as “Nazis.” The page also urges users to call DNR hotlines if they witness “looting, kidnapping, terrorism and provocation.”
Another VK group with 1,800 followers called “Fund to help for Nororossiya and Donbass” solicits money, apparently to buy medical supplies, tents, flashlights and other equipment. It regularly thanks donors, and one recent post says it “Bought 100 hand-held radios” on Mr. Strelkov’s orders.