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Russia: How Passengers of “Nevsky Express” Tell Their Stories Through Social Media

Russian authorities continue to investigate the crash of the train “Nevsky Express”[ENG] that happened between Moscow and St. Petersburg on Friday night. According to officials, the tragedy that took lives of at least 25 passengers was a terrorist attack. The crash raised a number of questions. Many people ask what happened during the first hours after the crash and why it took so long to start reporting on it.

Since the tragedy happened far from any major populated area, it took several hours for reporters to arrive on the spot. Only then the first photographs and videos started to appear everywhere. But what happened to social media platforms that actively reported on the plane crash in Perm [ENG] in September 2008?

The only passenger who immediately reported about the crash of “Nevsky Express” was a Twitter user Lazy Frog. She tweeted 12 times about the crash before she arrived home. Here is what she wrote:

I am alive. But I should tell about it later. If someone tells anything in news, please write me.  They don't tell us anything here.

Later, many passengers from first cars – only last cars were derailed – said they were clueless for the whole hour after the crash. Lazy Frog posted few additional updates:

We boarded another train. I did whatever I could to help.

We are now at SAPSAN (new train that evacuated passengers to St. Petersburg – G.A.). I wish it would go slower.

They announced now that specially trained people would meet us at the train station.

The day after the tragedy, Lazy Frog summarized her experience:

I felt the first emotions about what happened when we got closer to Piter (St. Petersburg – G.A.). I wasn't worried at the place of the crash. I was a little concerned about my shoes – it was so muddy around and sharp stones.

Saturday revealed more first-hand information when passengers started blogging about their experiences. The most popular blog post related to the topic was written by LJ user paltus_mk [RUS] who was in one of the last cars heavily damaged by an explosion. He wrote [RUS]:

All that happens within 10 seconds when you understand what is about to occur. I had enough time to prepare my body. But nothing can help against the Newton's laws when dozens of tons of metal suddenly stop at high speed – just luck … …therefore I was just lucky. My brother was lucky, too, despite the fact that his wounds were more serious than mine.

[…]

Everything from something that went wrong till the full stop took about 30 seconds. It was dark and silent. Then wounded people started to cry. I was on the floor, smashed by other bodies. I moved the bodies. I saw that I was covered with blood but it wasn't mine. I saw that I am ok and my hand\legs work. I had a bleeding wound in my head. I had to get up and waited for some time before men with less serious injuries cleaned the way out.

[…]

Suffering was all around. We were sitting at the end of the train car and all the bags flied toward us. A lot of wounded people around. Durng the first minutes after the crash, the car was just a buch of bodies, chairs and parts of the train that were equally distributed around.

Paltus_mk tells the story of evacuation from the first minutes after the crash with many details but, at the same time, avoids description that may disturb readers. He writes that passengers started providing the first aid to each other heroically and without panic. He says it was impossible to count how many people died. The rescuers arrived only an hour and a half after the crash. Paltus_mk and his brother were finally evacuated to a local hospital and he later arrived to St. Petersburg.

Another survival story was published by a blogger pancakyes on another Russian blogging service Ya.ru . Her train car was not damaged by the explosion. She published her first post at 22:11 – a half an hour after the crash – right from the place of the tragedy. She wrote that the train stopped because of some accident, few cars were derailed and she would come home later than expected. Almost an hour later, she added that there were victims in the last two cars. On Saturday,  pancakyes published the whole story of the crash [RUS] as she witnessed it:

We felt few shakes that were getting stronger and stronger. Things started to fall down from the table. It was not clear what happened. No announcements. First, we were thinking that it wasn't serious. Maybe someone stopped the train by accident. But conductors with pale faces started running around collecting mattresses, tablecloths and water. They asked us not to leave our seats unless we are doctors. We heard some bad things from their radios. Some rumors started to go around. We didn't believe that two cars were disconnected and they were so far. Later, we fund out that it was true.

We went out and wanted to help. Went up untill the third car. […] We didn't want to be just gawkers and make a crowd without any opportunity to help. We also didn't want to see what people who came from there told  us.

Immediately after the crash, social media platforms became the first place where Russian journalist were looking for information. A reporter from a Russian news agency RIA-Novosty left a comment on the pancakyesblog and asked her to call him immediately. Tatyana Landa (LJ user Elada) wrote on her blog [RUS] about a friend who was on the train but survived. Two reporters immediately left comments asking her to contact them. Tatyana later published  an angry  post [RUS] where she told that a journalist from “Komsomolskaya pravda” (Russian tabloid newspaper) was trying to call her several times during that night. The post turned to a place were people started to discuss if journalists can use bloggers as sources of information about the train crash. Reporters also tried to contact  a blogger who wrote [RUS] that she had decided not to take the “Nevsky Express” at the last minute.

Some bloggers expressed their frustration [RUS] with the fact that so few people from the train used social media to report about what was happening. And, apparently, there are several explanations why social media didn't play major role in the coverage of the “Nevsky express” tragedy.

Twitter, the most convenient platform for live blogging, is relatively unpopular in Russia. According to twitRU [RUS], there are only 2,700 Twitter users who write in Russian language. At the same time, popular Russian blogging platforms as Livejournal.com or ya.ru could have been used for live reporting but, as discussed above, there is only a couple of examples of this use.

The second explanation is related to the role of mobile devices and connectivity. The number of portable devices in the country is growing. More and more Russians can use Internet and various Web-applications on the go. This trend is especially strong in the area of Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the crash happened far from any metropolitan area where, as witnesses reported, the cell phone coverage was limited. A blogger pancakyes recollects the connectivity problem:

The phone connection was very bad. Everyone probably tried to make a call at the same time and the net was overloaded. I started to get SMSs only when I was on the second train (the one that took passengers to Saint-Petersburg – G.A.). I could use the Internet occasionally, but it was very difficult.

In contrast, the plane crash in Perm last year provided many opportunities for citizen reporting:

1. The plane crashed within the city borders where  many people could see what happened right from their windows. The “Nevsky express” crash, as noted earlier, happened the rural area.

2. The  social media coverage in Perm was based on the accounts of those who witnessed the crash but were not part of it (unfortunately, there were no survivors on the plane). All the witnesses of the “Nevsky Express” incident were passengers on the train.

3. Most people posted their updates on the plane crash in Perm using their home computers. The “Nevsky Express” survivors had to rely on their mobile devices.

These differences explain why social media reporting was prevalent in the case of the plane crash and almost absent in the situation with “Nevsky Express.”

It is also possible to claim that Russia has not yet developed the tradition of social media reporting. That is why only two passengers were motivated enough to go online and assume the role of citizen reporters. It may also explain the hostility of passengers and bloggers toward journalists who were looking for information on the crash in social media.

It looks like the Russian blogosphere is still far from being a major source for breaking news. It still remains as a place for distribution of information and broad discussions about what has happened.

11 comments

  • Beaumain

    Thank you, a very interesting study.

  • Mariam Khan

    very nicely described. we use social media to explain and share the news around us. the events around us. it is very social, or sociability as claude levi-strauss would say. it is a more human form maybe of reporting. before, we always had to wait till after things happened. and russia especially has a great tradition of having a voice, but it was always in books.

  • I would strongly doubt the number of Russian language tweeters, since my own account there happens to have 2887 followers, and I’m nowhere near the Russian top 3 in popularity.

    • Dear Anton, thank you for your very important input! Do you have any estimation about the number of Twitter users in Russia?
      Anyway, I think that it is still relatively low number if we compare it to other blog platforms in Russia. Consequently, the probability of having Twitter users on the train was lower, than probability of having bloggers from Livejournal and other Russian blogospheres. Am I wrong?

  • It’s interesting that, despite a seemingly underdeveloped “tradition of social media reporting,” Russian journalists devote much time and energy to searching blogs and other social media for potential sources. It’s a totally natural thing to do, of course – as natural as getting into a car and driving to the site of the crash to interview the victims firsthand, and, thankfully, many of the traditional media have enough staff and other resources to do their job both online and offline.

    Also, judging by tema‘s comment you’ve linked to, bloggers’ reports from the scene are in high demand: “It’s somehow boring to read about such tragedies on the RIA ‘Novosti’ site – there’s a ton of poorly digested info there.”

    Would be unwise of the media to ignore this – and it appears that many of them don’t.

    In this particular case, both the professional journalists and the potential bloggers who were on the train fell victim to unfavorable circumstances: the former needed time to get to the spot, and the latter were stuck in the middle of nowhere, their cell phones not working properly, many of them wounded, some killed, and all of them shocked. While it seems logical to expect a prompt reaction from professional journalists – as well as from professional rescuers, who, unfortunately, took as long as journalists to get to the scene of the accident – it’s not as simple with the passengers of the derailed train…

    Take the first Neva Express blast, which happened in Aug. 2007: as now, the media response was somewhat belated then, and, as in the Perm plane crash case, bloggers were on it right away – including LJ user katoga, who was liveblogging from her home nearby, while her husband was down at the site of the train crash. It’s not easy to categorize a blogger in a situation in which katoga found herself in 2007: she wasn’t a survivor of the crash, but she was very involved, via her husband, in what was taking place. And as I’m re-reading the translation of one of her posts now, here’s the part that I find extremely important and moving:

    “[LJers], IF ANY OF YOU HAVE RELATIVES OR FRIENDS THERE, GET IN TOUCH WITH ME. [phone number]

    I’M JUST A 15-MINUTE DRIVE AWAY. YOUR PEOPLE CAN GET TO MALAYA VISHERA AND STAY WITH ME. SPEND THE NIGHT HERE, CALM DOWN. THEN TOMORROW THEY’LL GET WHEREVER THEY NEED WITHOUT PROBLEMS BY COMMUTER TRAIN. EVERYONE’S WELCOME!!!”

    This passage is, perhaps, of little informational value to anyone who wasn’t there on that awful night in Aug. 2007, but it highlights the fact that blogging is as much about breaking news coverage as it is about simple human interaction, which, unfortunately, often has to take place under very complex circumstances.

    And the passage above has also reminded me of what I read about Friday’s tragedy on Gazeta.ru (RUS): the story of a 78-year-old woman, whose house stands right next to the railway and was nearly hit by the train’s derailed rear car, and who sheltered the first six passengers, those who suffered relatively mild injuries and were able to walk themselves. She had been horrified by all this, and was still in shock 12 hours later, when she was being interviewed. Obviously, she’s not a blogger, but a reader in me doesn’t care: I’m grateful to Gazeta.ru reporters who brought me this story.

    All in all, stuff like this raises as many questions – and provides as many answers – about the traditional media performance in extreme situations as it does about the bloggers’ performance.

    Thank you so much, Gregory, for such a thought-provoking post! And I’m really sorry for such a lengthy comment :)

    • Dear Veronica,
      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. It raises a lot of interesting questions.
      I am most interested in your following argument: “While it seems logical to expect a prompt reaction from professional journalists – as well as from professional rescuers, who, unfortunately, took as long as journalists to get to the scene of the accident – it’s not as simple with the passengers of the derailed train…”
      I think it is debatable. You might be interested in a paper “Nokia Effect” that was written by communication professor Steven Livingston. He provides an analysis of the terror attack in the London Metro and the role of mobile phones in it. Recently we had some tragedies that were covered by people who were involved in it (e.g. Mumbai, Iran).
      Currently we have more and more mobile devices with photo/video functions as well as better coverage with 3G or other networks, the general probability that some specific event will be covered by someone who was “just a passenger” is increasing. Moreover, technologies as I-report application for Iphone (CNN) or Ushahidi trigger and activate crowdsourcing.
      We can argue about motivation (e.g. some people feel immediate necessity to share information about what happened). Personally, I think it is also a generational change. Anyway, it is very interesting question. Thank you again for your great comment!

      • I do agree, Gregory, that unfavorable circumstances weren’t the only factor that contributed to the lack of citizen media reports in this case, especially considering that it’s cheaper to fly to St. Pete these days than take the Neva Express – it probably means that the concentration of advanced mobile devices on this train was much higher than on an average elektrichka commuter train, and yet…

        An off-topic note: another “debatable” point in that argument of mine is that the professional rescuers are somehow to blame for late arrival – I’m sure that individual rescuers got there as fast as they could and did their best to help. It’s both logical and irrational to expect the state to be well-prepared for such emergencies, and implying that the rescue effort wasn’t perfect because of the individuals directly involved in it seems wrong. Sorry about that. I’ve heard that there weren’t enough medicines on the train – the train that had been attacked before – and I guess it says something about the general mess here…

  • A great read, Gregory. As even the most jaded journalists agree that citizen media has a role to play in breaking news coverage, your analysis of the factors that influence how—or if—that coverage happens, is extremely useful. Excellent conversation in the comments as well!

  • […] such as the ‘Nevsky Express’ and Perm Plane crash demonstrate how people are becoming increasingly more involved in news as […]

  • […] pressure. The role of blogs and new media was crucial in coverage of Moscow bombings [EN], „Nevsky Express” crash [EN], Perm fire and other disasters. Sometimes, blog campaigns sometimes lead to […]

  • […] neuen Medien war entscheidend bei der Berichterstattung über das Attentat in Moskau [EN], dem „Nevsky Express” Unfall [EN], dem Feuer in Perm und anderen Fällen. Manche Kampagnen in Blogs führten […]

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