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Social media re-enactment 'highlights' MH17 actors

Lewis Sanders IVJuly 17, 2015

Bellingcat, an investigative journalism platform, has re-enacted the social media reaction on the anniversary of the MH17 crash. The experiment claims to fill in gaps on contested involvement of Ukrainian separatists.

MH17 Flugzeugabsturz Absturzstelle Ukraine Separatist 19.7.2014
Image: Reuters

On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashed in the rebel-held area of Dontesk Oblast, Ukraine.

The event triggered accusations of involvement from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments. Reports following the tragic day hinted at the use of a surface-to-air missile as the root cause behind the Boeing 777's crash, which left all 298 civilian passengers on board dead.

Needless to say, the social media response was momentous. Outpourings of grief, shock and anger poured onto social networks. However, despite inquiries into the events that downed the Malaysian Airlines aircraft, no suspects have formally arisen.

A year on, investigative citizen journalism platform Bellingcat - known for geolocating the site where "Islamic State" militants beheaded American journalist James Foley - has re-enacted the social media reaction to the MH17 crash. The experiment contextualizes responses from actors - including civil aviation bodies, local eyewitnesses and Ukrainian separatists - involved in the series of events that led to the downing of the aircraft.

"Though each piece of social media evidence described in this article is not conclusive on its own, a clear pattern emerged and matches the widely accepted narrative of July 17," Bellingcat said on its website.

BUK-M system moves in

Using the Twitter account @MH17 live, the re-enactment begat at 07:08 UTC on Friday with the first tweet providing an intercepted call between Ukrainian separatist leaders - one of whom is purported to be an "officer of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Federation" aliased "Botsman."

The discussion involves the arrival of a "BUK-M" system, a medium-range surface-to-air missile system designed by the Soviet Union and its successor Russia.

Bellingcat's re-enactment shows on-going "separatist communication" regarding the then-acquired BUK system, with images captured and geolocated, showing the missile system traveling through the Ukrainian village of Torez.

An image showing the trailing smoke of a missile after launch appears at 14:20 UTC, shot from the area where the BUK system was situated, according to geolocation conducted by Bellingcat.

'Maybe a Ukrainian fighter jet'

Following local eyewitness claims of "droning" noise and the downing of a "transport plane or maybe a Ukrainian fighter jet" on social media, Ukrainian separatist communications intercepted by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) discuss a hit target, hinting it was likely a Ukrainian military aircraft.

However, upon further inspection by separatists - who were the first at the scene of the crash - they discover that the aircraft was civilian, according to the re-enactment.

Losing contact

After nearly an hour of back-and-forth communication between separatist leaders discussing the fact that the plane was a civilian aircraft, Malaysia Airlines confirmed on their Twitter account that they had lost contact with flight MH17.

The social media experiment continues with eyewitness accounts of a missile being launched prior to the crash.

The social media re-enactment chronologically stitches together the events surrounding the downing of flight MH17 by juxtaposing military operations on the ground below the flight path, even before take-off from Amsterdam.


On July 18, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (SMM) arrived at the crash site, where "armed members of the so-called 'DPR' [Donetsk People's Republic]" were stationed, providing "very limited access" to the OSCE monitoring team.

"I remember very well I was sitting in my office in Kyiv when the aircraft came down and I thought initially that this is yet another military aircraft that was downed by the rebels, because if you look back into the history there, you will see that exactly during that period of time many military aircraft came down over the area controlled by the rebel forces," Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE's SMM told DW.

While the OSCE's SMM does not have a mandate for investigating the crash, it does provide support - following agreements from both sides of the conflict - to facilitate access for "competent bodies."

A formal request to open an international tribunal on the MH17 crash, submitted to the UN Security Council (UNSC) by Malaysia, was snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called it "premature" and "counterintuitive." However, Russia did not raise any formal objections after Malaysia made its case to the UNSC, leaving the question of an investigation open-ended.