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Social Media Pages Give Vivid Glimpses Into Ukraine Conflict


People in eastern Ukraine have begun to use social media platforms to tell loved ones, I'm alive or ask others, have you seen this person? Or tell each other, here's where they're shelling now, stay away. Group pages that were once used to tell jokes and post gossip have been transformed into a running log of destruction and loss. Paul Sonne is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He writes in a recent article about how social media offers what he calls some of the most vivid real-time glimpses into the conflict. He joins us now from eastern Ukraine. Thanks very much for being with us.

PAUL SONNE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And Ukrainians are writing on what I guess is the Russian version of Facebook?

SONNE: Yeah, there's a Facebook clone essentially called VKontakte or VK. And that is generally where younger eastern Ukrainians would go in the same way that Americans would go to Facebook.

SIMON: Yeah. What have you read that has really reached into you the most?

SONNE: Well, the story that I recounted in the article I wrote was a story about a girl who is 18 years old, and her mother had gone a couple of months ago to the city of Debaltseve for work. So she had gone into this group and posted a photo of herself with her mother and said, you know, I haven't heard from her in six days. My grandmother's crying. My younger brother's crying. We don't know what to do. Has anyone seen her? And, in fact, someone did get back to her and managed to confirm that the mother was fine.

SIMON: Yeah. What happens when shells begin to fall? Do people post about where they are and what happens?

SONNE: Yeah. So this is something that has been happening throughout the conflict. It's interesting because most of the people who have died, especially civilians in the conflict, have been almost exclusively from artillery fire. Shells are falling on both sides. Often they are not particularly high-tech and, therefore, can't be directed very well, and they hit the wrong place. So what people will do is go on and say I live on this street. It hit this building. Sort of informing people if they know anyone who lives there. The other thing people often will do if they've already left the city - go on and ask people about their homes. So they have this thing called roll call...

SIMON: Yeah.

SONNE: ...Where the moderator of a group will say roll call and users will go on and ask about their home if they, you know, have already left the city, or the people who are still in city will go on and give all the updates they know about what has hit and where.

SIMON: Paul, is there any concern that you might have as a reporter who writes an account of this that some of these posts might be fraudulent?

SONNE: You know, you can tell when somebody is in the forums and is trying to post propaganda. But, you know, it's one of those things where I'm sure there's stuff in the forums that is made up, but when you look at the specificity of the questions that people are asking, it's pretty obvious, you know, there would be no reason to ask what happened to the house on Soviet St., number 2. There would be no real reason to fake it.

One of the things that people tend to fight about is whether people have given too much information. So if somebody signs on and says, I live on Lenin Street, and right next to my house is a tank, and there's outgoing fire. And it seems to be going in the direction of, you know, this city. Sometimes people will come on and start criticizing that person and saying that, look, you know, you're giving critical information that could be useful to the enemy if they are politically inclined one way or another. And then some people who aren't politically inclined say, hey, stop saying where there's outgoing fire because where ever there's outgoing fire, there's going to be return fire and my house is right next door. So, you know, let's not share that so that's sort of one of these unspoken rules. People tend to not share that kind of information.

The other thing that is interesting is there are often rules where the moderators will tell people that they're not supposed to come on and say, oh, my God, what was that? - after some enormous boom because people consider those kinds of posts not informative (laughter). So unless you have specific information - just coming on and saying oh, my God, there's a big boom by my house. People don't consider that useful.

SIMON: It also occurs to me, of course, you're reporting a story where there's not a lot of news from the site. Do you, as a reporter, begin a shift by logging into social media platforms?

SONNE: Yeah, of course. If I'm going to go to a city that's dangerous, I would immediately visit the forum for that city and you can usually get a pretty good sense of how violent it is at any given time.

SIMON: Paul Sonne's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in eastern Ukraine. Thanks so much for being with us.

SONNE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.