July 17, 2014, is a day people in the Netherlands will never forget. It’s the day Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people, two-thirds of whom were Dutch.
It’s a tragedy that affected the Netherlands much like 9/11 affected America and the Manchester Arena bombing of last summer affected people in the UK. And it’s the very same tragedy Vladimir Putin was accused of using to influence the US presidential election two years later.
The Boeing 777 passenger jet was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot to the ground with 298 people onboard, including 80 children.
As reported by RT, a Russian state funded media outlet, Malaysia accepted a Dutch report that a ‘Russian made’ missile shot down the plane but added it was yet to see evidence it was fired by Russia.
However, two Dutch journalists, as per The Daily Beast, Robert Van der Noordaa and Coen Van de Ven, have published a report which claims Russian trolls were deployed shift blame of the massacre by using conspiracy theories to make it too difficult to determine facts.
Shortly after the devastating attack, the Dutch government declared a national day of mourning and Prime Minister Mark Rutte, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima were at the airfield when the first caskets arrived, before being taken through Amsterdam in convoy.
Van de Ven has spoken about how a ‘very rare sense of unity erupted within the Netherlands,’ however that unity was soon said to be broken as a result of the fallouts over various conspiracy theories as to who was to blame for the atrocity.
The two journalists analysed 9 million tweets, as reported by Vox, written by suspected Russian propaganda farms between 2014 and 2017, which were released by Twitter in October 2018 in a bid to discover what, if any, role Russia played in the US elections. Of the tweets, 3,841 of the accounts were affiliated with the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA).
From that, they report at least 65,000 IRA tweets emerged within the first 24 hours after the crash, directly blaming the Ukrainian government in Kiev. The report also said a total of 111,486 tweets about the crash were posted by troll farms in just three days from July 17 to July 19, writing ‘never before or after did the trolls tweet so much in such a short period of time.’
According to Van der Noordaa and Van de Ven, the tweets first presented confusion, with an early tweet claiming that a Ukrainian plane had been short down by rebels, which would ‘trigger a new series of sanctions against Russia.’ However, they say this quickly changed to blaming Kiev with the hashtag ‘Poroshenko [the Ukrainian president] we want an answer!’
By July 18, they were all accusing Kiev, with three hashtags trending; ‘Kiev shot Boeing’, ‘Kiev Provocation’ and ‘Kiev Tell The Truth.’
Conspiracy theories also began appearing on Russian blog website LiveJournal, before being shared on Twitter and retweeted hundreds of times in minutes by the IRA.
One story claimed a Spanish man called Carlos, who allegedly worked for air traffic control in Kiev, had seen two fighter jets near the plane. Carlos was later exposed as a fraud, however Putin still cited his story in an interview in which he blamed the Ukraine for the atrocity.
Conspiracy theories like these, according to Van der Noordaa and Van de Ven, continue to cause tensions in the Netherlands despite it being accepted the plane was shot down by a Russian missile.
The Dutch led Joint Investigation Team (JIT), who made the discovery, intercepted recordings of phone conversations between pro-Russian Ukraine separatists who are said to have discussed the delivery of the missile.
However, Russia has rejected the JIT’s findings, saying the body had refused to look into evidence the serial number of the missile proved it was manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1986 in the arsenal of the Ukrainian army at the time, RT reports.
Twitter released the tweets written by the propaganda farms in October 2018 in a bid to be more transparent about attempts to influence elections.
The IRA are accused of creating an anti-Clinton campaign ahead of the US presidential elections, although it’s heavily debated as to whether they were responsible for shifting the results. The organisation are also accused of having written thousands of tweets with the hashtag #reasonstoleaveeu on the day of the EU referendum in the UK, the BBC reports.
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Emma Rosemurgey is an NCTJ trained Journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and started her career in regional newspapers before joining the LADbible Group team in 2017.