News Brief

Kremlin Accused Of Trying To Smother Online Coverage of Siberia Mall Fire

In the aftermath of a devastating weekend fire in a Russian shopping center that left at least 64 people dead, many of them children, internet users say they are seeing widespread evidence of coordinated efforts to minimize coverage of the disaster and criticism of the official response.

A whole class of schoolchildren is reported to have died in the fire, after making desperate phone calls to their parents as they were engulfed by smoke and flames in a movie theater in the “Winter Cherry” mall in the Siberian city of Kemerevo.

Russian social media has been flooded with angry comments from grief-stricken parents and relatives since the fire on Sunday, after it emerged that fire exits had been blocked — with many directing their fury at the authorities.

It is the latest in a catalogue of accidents in Russia marked both by apparent negligence beforehand and an inadequate response by the emergency services afterwards.

But many internet users have reported an abnormally high number of “dislike” marks on videos and other posts related to the fire, according to the independent website Meduza, in what appears to be a deliberate effort to reduce their prominence. Many of these “dislikes” and other comments appear to be linked to pro-government “Kremlin-bots,” according to analysis of the posts by one watchdog group.

Alexander Lillevyali, who lost three daughters in the blaze after he had dropped them off at the theater, said firefighters were far too slow to respond, even after arriving at the scene.

“I told them that there were children locked in a smoke-filled theater on the fourth floor,” he told Meduza. “But they took three minutes — three fucking minutes! — to put on their masks!”

Another woman told a newspaper of how her niece had called her from the same movie theater after the fire broke out and that the exits were blocked. ‘“Please tell mom that I loved her,”’ the woman remembered her niece saying, “‘Please tell everyone that I loved them.’”

The avalanche of critical comments seems to have spurred systematic efforts to reduce their impact online. One group called the “Observers” has highlighted the unusually high ratio of dislikes to likes in this and other video reports about the fire.

This is characteristic of the reaction to opposition-oriented videos posted online, according to the group. Video posts by Russia’s best-known opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, typically attract tens of thousands of dislikes, affecting the algorithms governing whether or not they “trend.”

It is an echo of methods used by the Chinese government in managing opinions online, where an army of government censors routinely squelch content that conflicts with the official line.

There has also been widespread condemnation of how the local authorities responded afterwards — with relatives complaining of a lack of information and insensitive, heavy-handed behaviour by officials.

Meduza reported how Alexander Lillevyali’s wife, Olga, was reduced to tears after repeatedly being asked the same questions about her daughters by a social worker.

“The way everything is set up in this government, you’ll still have to give this evidence several more times,” the social worker responded. “Don’t cry. You’re going to need those tears. The worst is yet to come.”