A day after a horrific plane crash in eastern Ukraine claimed the lives of nearly 300 people, speculation about who is to blame for shooting down the aircraft is in full swing. Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, and even the separatists in Donetsk have all placed responsibility on each other. In Kyiv, President Poroshenko blamed rebels in the east and criticized Russia for destabilizing the border. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin claimed that Kyiv is accountable for anything that happens in Ukraine. Donetsk’s putative leader denies any role in the attack on Malaysian Flight MH17, saying it must have been the Ukrainian Air Force.
Unsurprisingly, the blame game is now playing out on Wikipedia, where editors battle to record the polemics that best reflect their side of the story. Earlier this morning, the Russian-language Wikipedia entry for commercial aviation accidents hosted one such skirmish, when someone with an IP address based in Kyiv edited the MH17 record to say that the plane was shot down “by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with Buk system missiles, which the terrorists received from the Russian Federation.” Less than an hour later, someone with a Moscow IP address replaced this text with the sentence, “The plane was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers.”
Thanks to a Twitter bot that tracks anonymous Wikipedia edits made from IP addresses used by the Russian government, we know that the second edit to the MH17 article came from a computer at VGTRK, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company.
Статья в Википедии Список авиационных катастроф в гражданской авиации была отредактирована ВГТРК http://t.co/peZ60q07Fj
— Госправки (@RuGovEdits) July 18, 2014
A Wikipedia article about commercial aviation catastrophes was edited by VGTRK.
VGTRK is the home of Dmitri Kiselyov, who is known informally as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist. Kiselyov is notorious for his strong criticisms of the governments in Kyiv and Washington. During the Crimean crisis, Kiselyov once boasted on television that Russia remains “the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust.” In June, two VGTRK journalists were killed near Luhansk after coming under mortar fire while embedded with local rebels. Nadiya Savchenko, the helicopter pilot whom separatists captured in Ukraine and transferred to Voronezh earlier this month, now sits in a Russian detention center, accused of participating in the attack that killed the VGTRK reporters.
The Twitter account that discovered VGTRK’s Internet activity, @RuGovEdits, is modeled on another bot, @CongressEdits, which tracks Wikipedia edits made from IP addresses in the US Congress. The code for CongressEdits, created by programmer Ed Summers, is open-source software and can be configured easily to watch for anonymous edits from any IP ranges.