In Russia there is a sense nothing is ever quite as it seems

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Social media and emergency make for a nasty blend.

In the aftermath of disaster, rumours blur what few facts there are.

Disinformation – malicious or simply false – curdles the mix.

As untruths fracture across the web, they spread panic and distrust, further complicating the work of emergency services and of the authorities more broadly.

This is as much the case in Russia as elsewhere. Two tragic public safety incidents this past year illustrate the point.

The first was a devastating fire last March in a shopping mall in the Siberian town of Kemerovo.

The death toll was inflated on social media far beyond the official count of 64, disinformation compounding residual distrust in the local authorities even when the reports were disproven.

The second was in the town of Magnitogorsk on New Year’s Eve where an explosion ripped through an apartment block, killing 39 people.

The authorities said it was most likely a gas explosion but that they were investigating all leads. On New Year’s Day a minivan in the vicinity exploded, killing three more people.

Rumours spread of a cover-up – a terror attack the authorities would not admit to.

Rumours spread about the rumours – was Ukraine behind them? One pro-Kremlin paper went a step further, suggesting that British military disinformation experts in Kiev were directing Ukraine’s efforts.

A Ukrainian prankster who calls himself Yevgeny Volnov stirred the pot, warning locals over the phone to watch out for anyone carrying sacks of sugar into their buildings (more on this later).

Mr Volnov is a self-styled warrior in the information war with Russia, Kiev’s battle with Moscow played out down the telephone lines of the scared residents of Magnitogorsk.

He was already a wanted man in Russia because of a similar prank in Kemerovo.

The disinformation swirling around both disasters has prompted calls for parliament to legislate against fake news.

A bill to punish those who publish it or who disrespect state institutions has had its first reading and is expected to go through.

Galina Arapova, a media lawyer in Russia, thinks it’s a dangerous step. “These two together basically provide the opportunity to silence all kind of public discussion on issues of public concern,” she said.

Governments worldwide are grappling with the problem of fake news. Those with more of a disposition towards freedom of speech tend to view legislation as too draconian but that is unlikely to bother Russia.

But for many governments, it is Russian disinformation which worries them most. This is after all the country which bought you the infamous St Petersburg troll factory.

This is the land of hacking groups Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, of military intelligence officers with a love for English cathedral spires, this is the land which could almost be said to have invented fake news.

Which brings me back to the prankster, Yevgeny Volnov (aka Mykita Kuvikov, Volnov is his stage name).

On Volnov’s YouTube channel where he released the recording of his phone calls to the residents of Magnitogorsk, the ticker read: “How to survive from hexogen.”

That, and the sacks of sugar reference, are especially loaded in Russia.

In 1999, bombs ripped through four apartment buildings, killing 293 people. The official line was that Chechen terrorists were behind the attacks, prompting the then prime minister – a young Vladimir Putin – to invade Chechnya.

“Wherever we find them we will destroy them,” he said. “Even if we find them in the toilet. We will rub them out in the outhouse.”

It was the brutal prelude to a particularly bloody campaign which would solidify his power and reputation as the strongman defender of his people.

But the rumours were never quite laid to rest that intelligence agents had planted the bombs to justify that war, bringing hexogen into the buildings in sacks marked for sugar.

The echoes in Magnitogorsk of that past trauma may be nothing more than coincidence but they hit a nerve, pointing to the residual sense in Russia that nothing is ever quite as it seems.

This time round the cause may well have been gas but there are still several investigative outlets which maintain it was terrorism and point to reported ongoing raids on the local central Asian community.

Recent weeks have seen a new wave of bomb threats and emergency evacuations in towns and cities across Russia.

On Tuesday in Moscow, 20,000 people were evacuated from schools and shopping malls. According to the TASS news agency, email threats were received from the IP addresses of foreign countries, including Ukraine.

Fake news and information warfare are a dirty business. Clearly the Russian people can be victims of it too, whether in their own news bulletins or from info-warriors abroad.

But in Putin’s Russia, truth is slippery, reality has many versions and the logical conclusion tends to lead down blind alleys.

Confusion is a fact of life and a control mechanism. Legislating against fake news will likely block viable information sources too, leaving people ever more in the dark.

That is exactly the place where rumour and conspiracy grow.

(c) Sky News 2019: In Russia there is a sense nothing is ever quite as it seems

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