The bodies had hardly stopped falling from the sky on July 17, 2014, when the trolls of Russia’s Internet Research Agency went into action. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had just been shot down over eastern Ukraine, and the same IRA operation Vladimir Putin would use to influence the U.S. presidential election two years later went into overdrive, pumping out conspiracy theories to exculpate Moscow’s murderous clients.
The Boeing 777 passenger jet was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board, including 80 children, when it was blown out of the air above territory held by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Two-thirds of the passengers were from the Netherlands. It was a tragedy that affected many Dutch people in the way Americans had experienced 9/11.
Now exhaustive research by two Dutch journalists, Robert van der Noordaa and Coen van de Ven, published in the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, shows precisely the way the Russian trolls worked to shift blame for the massacre and create a dense fog of conspiracy theories to obscure the facts.
Six days after the mid-air explosion, the Dutch government declared a national day of mourning. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, along with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, were present at the airfield when the first 40 caskets arrived, to be conveyed in a procession of hearses throughout Amsterdam, as mourners lined the streets. Van de Ven recalls that “a very rare sense of unity erupted within the Netherlands.” But that unity, thanks largely to the fallout from the conspiracy theories advanced by Russian trolls, soon became frayed.
Van der Noordaa and van de Ven analyzed 9 million IRA tweets covering the period 2014-2017 that were released by Twitter in October 2018 as part of an effort to elucidate the Russian role in the U.S. presidential election.
They report that in the 24 hours after the MH17 crash the IRA posted at least 65,000 tweets, mainly in Russian, that blamed the Ukrainian government in Kiev for the disaster. Altogether, 111,486 tweets about MH17 were posted by the IRA in just three days, from July 17 through 19. (By comparison, in the 10-week period leading up to the November 2016 elections, the IRA accounts posted 175,993 tweets.) According to the two journalists: “Never before or after did the trolls tweet so much in such a short period of time.”
At the beginning, there was confusion among the trolls: An early tweet claimed that a Ukrainian plane had been shot down and that the rebels were responsible, which would “trigger a new series of sanctions against Russia.” But the blame was quickly switched to Kiev, with the hashtag “Poroshenko [the Ukrainian president] we want an answer!”
By the next morning, July 18, all the tweets were accusing Kiev, with three hashtags: #КиевСбилБоинг (“Kiev shot Boeing”), #ПровокацияКиева (“KievProvocation”) and #КиевСкажиПравду ("KievTelltheTruth”). The onslaught of tweets ended abruptly on the morning of July 19, after which the trolls continued to write about MH17, but with much less frequency and without the hashtags.
What is remarkable about the three-day tweetstorm is that the trolls actually wrote their own tweets instead of limiting themselves to retweeting or copying other extremist tweets, as was the case with other international incidents. They also composed their own stories on the LiveJournal platform, a popular Russian blog website, and then shared them on Twitter.
One particularly popular blog, written by one Katya Timofeeva, described a Spaniard named “Carlos,” who allegedly worked for air traffic control in Kiev and had spotted two fighter jets near the MH17 plane. (Although Carlos was later exposed as a fraud, Putin actually cited his story as evidence of Ukrainian culpability in a 2016 interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone.) After Timofeeva shared her story on Twitter, it was retweeted by trolls close to a hundred times within six minutes.
As van de Ven and van der Noordaa point out, Russian-concocted theories like the one about Ukrainian fighter jets have stubbornly persisted in the Netherlands to this day, embraced by activist citizen journalists and even ordinary citizens, despite the irrefutable findings of the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team (JIT) that the plane was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.
The JIT used intercepted recordings of telephone conversations by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, who discussed the delivery of the missile, videos and photographs on social networks, research of the Bellingcat investigators, eyewitness accounts, forensic examinations of the plane’s debris, and simulation modeling of the explosion of the plane to establish beyond doubt that Flight MH17 was shot down from Ukrainian rebel territory by a Russian 9M38 BUK missile launched from a BUK-TELAR self-propelled system, brought from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in Kursk.
(In fact, according to van der Noordaa and van de Ven, the impending transfer of the BUK was already made known by the newly appointed Russian prosecutor in Crimea, Natalia Poklonskaya, who tweeted on June 29 that “the rebels now have a ‘fine cookie’ against the Ukrainian air force.” Her tweet was removed shortly after the plane was shot down.)
Moscow has denied involvement in the crash from the first, claiming that the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet, despite the fact that no such aircraft was visible on radar or in genuine photographs. An alternative, equally implausible, theory advanced by Russia is that the BUK missile belonged to Kiev
Such denials have fed directly into the conspiracy theories advanced in the Netherlands. Joost Niemoller, an influential Dutch tweeter, published a book three months after the crash claiming Prime Minister Rutte made a secret deal with Kiev to cover up the real truth about MH17. More recently, in a televised debate with Rutte, Thierry Baudet, leader of the right-wing FvD party, questioned the independence of the JIT investigation and suggested that Ukraine was the culprit, shocking the relatives of victims of the MH17 disaster.
Another vocal Dutch critic of the JIT is Kees van der Pijl, a former professor at the University of Sussex in the U.K. who once claimed that Israelis, with the help of Zionists in the U.S. government, blew up the Twin Towers. His latest book is Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold War. Although van der Pijl does not state outright that Kiev was behind the crash, he stresses that Ukraine, depicted as an ultra-nationalist, fascist state, had a motive for downing the plane—to draw Moscow into a war and compel NATO to intervene.
Van der Pijl, who is highly critical of the JIT investigation for being too hasty and leaving out what he says are important details, presented his book at a conference on the MH17 catastrophe held on May 17 in Moscow and hosted by Viktor Ivanov, a longtime Putin ally and former KGB officer.
Van der Pijl told his audience: “I’m worried about how the governments of Western countries and, in particular, my country, the Netherlands, continue to use this catastrophe in accordance with NATO’s economic and ideological war policy against Russia.”
The Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova, who attended the conference, noted that Ivanov complimented Van der Pijl’s book and compared the downing of MH17 to “a special operation, aimed to destroy the prosperous cooperation between Russia and the European Union.”
The Dutch MH17 naysayers have not only looked to Moscow for support. In January 2017, after the JIT had issued its first preliminary report on the crash, Niemoller, Baudet, van der Pijl, and others sent an open letter to President Donald Trump, asking him to establish an independent inquiry into the crash.
They doubtless knew they had a sympathetic ear in the American president. In 2015, speaking on MSNBC, Trump had contested the preliminary findings of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB), whose report alleged that the Malaysia Airlines jet was hit by a surface-to-air missile launched by eastern Ukrainian rebels: “It may have been their weapon, but they didn’t use it, they didn’t fire it, they even said the other side fired it to blame them,” Trump said. “I mean to be honest with you, you’ll probably never know for sure.”
Whatever Trump’s views, the U.S. has officially backed the JIT’s conclusions. On May 24, 2018, the day the JIT released a second report on MH17, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert issued this statement: “Today’s announcement confirms and adds detail to what we have said from the earliest days of this tragedy: MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia and Russia-led forces… It is time for Russia to cease its lies and account for its role in the shoot down.”
Although Russia’s Defense Ministry responded to the JIT report by reiterating that it had nothing to do with the downing of the plane, and the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed the findings were based on “fake data,” Russia is showing slight signs of conciliation behind the scenes. In March of this year, Dutch and Australian government officials met with their Russian counterparts to discuss responsibility for the disaster. (The results of the talks have remained confidential.)
But whatever the Russians might eventually concede—and it won’t be much—conspiracy theories in the Netherlands will continue to be part of the MH17 narrative. As Leiden conspiracy specialist Jelle van Buuren told van der Noordaa and van de Ven: “That [Ukrainian] fighter jet, no matter how absurd, always pops up again. That is the tricky thing about conspiracies: Once they are there, it’s hard to get rid of them.”
Anna Nemtsova in Moscow also contributed to this story.