Niki Cheong is blogging

#MH17 and social media on Astro Awani

Yesterday morning, I got a text message from Astro Awani’s Dzulfitri asking if I was able to head into the news agency’s studio to speak live about social media sentiments regarding the Malaysia Airlines airplane MH17 that was downed in Ukraine.

I had spent the night before staying up into the wee hours of the morning both keeping up to date with what was happening and also, as I was with MH370, trying to quell speculation or correct misinformation to the best of my ability from where I was.

You can watch the video – which is primarily in Bahasa Malaysia – above. But I also wanted to share some thoughts (bits of which I mentioned in the interview, and other points that I didn’t) here.

1. One of the most popular question I’ve been asked over the past couple of days was how were social media sentiments different from when news about the missing Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 broke. To me, the first hour or so yesterday when news of MH17 started coming in had many people reacting similarly in that they were quick to jump to conclusions.

First tweets I saw was the “Not again!” sort, which came across to me as a pre-empt to attack Malaysia Airlines for yet another air disaster. There were many, “Oh no!” messages as well – I couldn’t tell if they were from concern (I’m sure some were) or more “Here we go again” but very quickly, the blame game started.

2. At this point, I had already seen one tweet from a foreign journalist which indicate that the plane was shot down. There was no source so I kept mum about it. Reports till then were about crashes and speculation were rife. What was interesting though was that there were many messages – including one from myself – asking people to hold off speculation. I reminded, through my tweets and Facebook update, that so far all media reports were referring back to one source – Interfax. It would seem here that many too have learned from MH370 that speculation is never a good thing.

3. When more reports came in about the possible shooting (although, with very little confirmation – CNN was repeatedly mentioning that they could not independently verify claims and Reuters in their story too said something similar), I sensed the change of tone in messages. There were already many messages of condolences coming in so it either drowned out the negative messages, or people’s opinion changed with the new information.

4. Then when images from the crash site started appearing – the first I saw was an unverified YouTube video showing smoke rising from a crash site (which, to my chagrin were being spread by news organisations. I am not a fan of unverified material like these being uploaded, even with a disclaimer that it’s not verified, because knowing how the Internet works, it could easily be a hoax) – another round of reminders were going around telling people not to share them as the material contained very graphic images of the bodies from the plane.

5. That there were so many reminders to me really shows how much we’ve learned from previous incidents – people were preempting activity on social media because they knew what was about to come. And sure enough they did – in my journalism classes, my students have told me over and over again that the only “serious” news they seem drawn to is violence and deaths.

Not just news organisations but individuals too started sharing the gruesome images and all the reminders turned into anger – I saw a lot of tweets berating people for sharing it, and many threats of unfriending on Facebook if anyone shared those images. Very soon, these turned into pleas – many messages going along the lines of, “Would you want to see the images if your friends or family were on the plane?”.

6. So, while there were many more what I would refer to as “rationale” people dealing with the information flow on social networks this time, it was still not enough to quell the number of people who were trigger happy in sharing those pictures. This was the same with other information – people had no issues spreading yet-unverified information of who might have been on the plane (some were legit, friends’family on Facebook who knew who was on the flight were posting notes of condolences).

7. Besides what happened in the first few hours following the incident, other things I noticed was that the response from Malaysian authorities and Malaysia Airlines was much swifter this time. During MH370, they all received a lot of flak for delayed notice Рthis time, when the Transport Minister did not tweet, his colleagues were quick to pre-emptively defend him stating that he was in China (which means access to Twitter and Facebook was limited, at the very least).

Still, their updates didn’t say much other than the fact the were on it. But again, I think lesson too learned from past experience. I do think they could have gone a bit faster – yes, there needs to be verification but many world leaders were already making statements and posting updates quicker than our own.

8. In general, there were much less of negative tweets aimed at the Government or Malaysia Airlines. They exist, of course, but having constantly monitoring my large Facebook network and on Twitter, they seem negligible. What appears more pronounced are posts condemning this people – I see more condemnation of those actions than the actions themselves. I wonder if those who posted the condemnations were doing this pre-emptively or are getting worked up at the sight of just a few of these post (as opposed to large volumes).

9. Besides just telling people to stop spreading rumours, unverified information etc, I also saw several posts by people who offered more practical advice – links to actual tips and tools regarding verification including The Break News Consumer Handbook, Google’s Reverse Image Search and Amnesty’s YouTube Data Viewer. This would be useful for the future if you haven’t encountered it before.

10. Finally, I felt that in general, there was a lot less interest in this compared to MH370. I don’t have the data to support this yet (I expect some organisation will soon release social media numbers as it does with major world events, if they haven’t already) – so this is purely conjecture – but my sense is that once we knew what had happened, interest diminished. There are still a lot of people talking, of course, but the numbers will dwindle much faster than MH370 if we want to use that as an example.

This is because unlike the previous flight, there is some sort of closure (in terms of knowing, would be very different if people knew others on the flight). I think the beast of the journalistic news cycle will also play  (and has already played) a part in moving the agenda Рalready the happenings in Gaza is sharing a bit of the conversation space. I also feel that at this point, the only thing left to know is who did it (Ukraine and Russia are playing the blame game at the moment) and the discourse now is focussing on geo-political issues (Russia, Ukraine, Europe, US, United Nations) and I feel people may be less interest in those than the more human-interest stories that a tragedy like this usually focuses on.


1.13pm Malaysian time (+8 GMT)

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