The minor scandal that I am about to describe might serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ill-conceived Facebook status updates, or perhaps about the growing threat of RuNet epistemic closure.
As the crisis in Eastern Ukraine shows no signs of abating, Russian bloggers are once again digging the trenches of armchair-warfare. Publicist Dmitry Olshansky, who in the past has both opposed and supported Putin, but who for the past few months has been stridently pro Russian intervention in Ukraine, posted the following text on his Facebook account:
Вниманию тех, кто может читать меня в Донецке в здании Донецкого совета – и тех, кто может продублировать для Донецка. Там находится агент враждебных СМИ гражданин России Илья Азар. Представляться будет журналистом из Москвы. Он ищет гадости для медиа, лояльных киевскому режиму. Убирайте его из здания.
Attention anybody who could be reading me in Donetsk, inside the Donetsk council building — also those who can duplicate my message for Donetsk. Inside there is an agent of hostile mass media, Russian citizen, Ilya Azar. He will say he is a journalist from Moscow. He is muck-racking for media that are loyal to the Kiev regime. Remove him from the building.
Ilya Azar, formerly of Lenta.ru (and according to some sources one of the prime causes [Global Voices report] for Kremlin pressure on its editorial staff that led to mass resignations last month), is currently reporting from Ukraine. Olshanksy's post might have been precipitated by Azar's tweets from the field like this one:
один из членов временного правительства донецкой народной республики http://t.co/eDspVcM42q pic.twitter.com/LN5eqTD2wy
— iлля¯\_(ツ)_/¯няшмяш (@A3AP) April 8, 2014
one of the members of the interim government of the donetsk people's republic
Olshansky soon removed his post, perhaps reacting to a wave of outrage both on Facebook and Twitter, but not before enterprising readers took screenshots:
Ольшанский совсем ебнулся, простите pic.twitter.com/YECACfmOGh
— Рустем Адагамов (@adagamov) April 8, 2014
Olshansky has completely lost his f*cking mind, pardon my French
But even with the prompt deletion, Olshansky's message got out — at least some of his readers were sympathetic enough to proliferate it in “anti-maidan” public groups on VKontakte and then through mobile walkie-talkie communication apps like Zello. One of Azar's followers tweeted a warning:
@belanatoli @a3ap @a3ap Уже третий раз за час на Донецком zello канале упоминают о “Азаре-провокаторе” с ориентировкой. Илья, будь осторожен
— 118088 (@118088) April 8, 2014
For the third time in an hour on the Donetsk zello channel they've mentioned “Azar-the-provocateur”, together with a description. Ilya, be careful.
It appears that Azar does indeed have something to worry about — Olshansky's message got modified as it moved through the grapevine. For example, an announcement [ru] that was posted in a public VKontakte group began much like Olshansky's original post (although Azar was referred to as a USA fifth-columnist), but then continued much more ominously:
Так же может сотрудничать с СБУ для передачи им оперативной информации и корректировки снайперов спецназа!! Размещаем его фото. Если есть такой человек – сами знаете, что нужно сделать.
He could also be cooperating with SBU (Ukrainian secret police) by giving them timely information, and directed spetsnaz snipers!! We are posting his photo. If there is a person like this – you know what to do.
Implicit threats of physical violence against Azar soon led to explicit threats against Olshansky, when journalist and writer Roman Volobuev wrote [ru] on his Facebook:
Поскольку с режимом бороться страшно и надо уметь, а бездействие деморализует, предлагаю побить Ольшанского: тут ни навыков не нужно, ни смелости, а дело хорошее — редкий случай, господа.
Because fighting the regime is scary and you need skills, and because inactivity is demoralizing, I suggest we beat up Olshanksy: you don't need skills or bravery, and at the same time it's a good cause — a rare treat, gents.
In response Olshansky called [ru] Volobuev a “stomach worm” that had “crawled out of someone's ass.” Never before has Russian intelligentsia been so close to its earthy roots.
Volobuev's sentiment was supported [ru] by former street activist Stanislav Yakovlev, and his commenters, including Ivan Kolpakov, Lenta.ru's former head of the investigative journalism department (and so Azar's former boss). When word came, however, that Roman Dobrokhotov, a little-liked-in-some-circles Internet “hipster” also volunteered [ru] to “f*ck up” Olshansky, all bets were off:
Efim Dikiy: и это, давайте лучше вместе долбанем по Доброхотову!
Станислав Яковлев: А ведь про Доброхотова отличная идея. Нет, правда, отличная.
Efim Dikiy: and yeah, better let's all gang up on Dobrokhotov!
Stanislav Yakovlev: Oh, this is actually a great idea about Dobrokhov. No, honestly, a great idea.
And so the bloody wheel of the revolution turns.