A Russian State television station thought it had a scoop that would finally solve the mystery of who was responsible for the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, but it was soon to discover that not everything one finds on the internet is true. The station was duped – unintentionally, it appears – by a photograph that appeared to show the moment before a Ukrainian military jet blew the passenger plane out of the sky.
Unfortunately for Channel 1, the black and white aerial photograph was quickly exposed by internet bloggers as a fake. As Ridicule of the channel’s ‘revelation’ poured in, its journalists searched for an explanation of how they could have been so badly mislead and the explanation they were given was stunning.
Ever since the tragic incident, in July of this year, which resulted in the loss of all 298 passengers and crew aboard MH17, Russian authorities have been eager to point the finger of blame at the Ukrainian military, which is engaged in a bloody conflict with pro-Russian separatists. In turn, the Ukrainians – along with western powers – have suggested that the airliner was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile fired by the separatists. The plane, a Boeing 777, was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it went down in Ukraine – crashing in a region held by Ukrainian pro-Russian rebels fighting for independence. The rebels have denied shooting the aircraft down, although they are known to be in possession of Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and preliminary investigation into the incident suggests that the plane was hit by “high-energy objects.” Most of the passengers on board were Dutch citizens.
A rebel officer is reported to have told the Associated Press that a team of Russian military personnel and pro-Russian separatists had shot down the plane, thinking it was a Ukrainian military aircraft.
Although the original source of the photograph is unclear, it was discovered by George Bilt, who claims to be a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with 26 years’ experience as an aviation expert. Bilt came across the photograph in an online forum and decided to send it to a colleague with the Russian Union of Engineers, a little-known group which had previously made the claim that MH17 had been brought down by a Ukrainian air-to-air missile. Although Bilt claims he made no assertions about the photograph and did not research its authenticity, he found it intriguing, in light of the Russian Engineers’ claim, and emailed Ivan Andreyevsky with a link to the online forum. Bilt also did not claim to know how the picture was taken, or by whom, and only informed Andreyevsky that image was to be found on the forum. Andreyevsky was then presented on Russian TV as the “expert” and the mystery of culpability was “solved” – presumably, to the great satisfaction of Russian authorities. Bilt’s email to Andreyevsky was presented as proof that the TV station’s claim was authentic.
Hardly had the story gotten out, however, when a number of sharp-eyed bloggers began to point out various problems with the image’s authenticity. The inconsistencies included the two aircraft in the “photograph” – the supposed Ukrainian jet and the commercial airliner – being misidentified: Rather than a Boeing 777, as MH17 was, the passenger jet appeared to be of a different model and the military jet – rather than being an SU-27, as identified – appeared to actually be a MiG-29. additionally, another observer pointed out that the cloud pattern in the photo was, in fact, identical to a 2012 Google Earth image. Still another claimed that the markings on the Malaysia Airlines plane were out of place and someone else pointed out that the aircraft did not appear to be in proportion, relative to the ground below.
Bilt is not happy about his name being associated with the story, saying of the TV station “Those folks are either desperate or totally unprofessional.”
Stunned to discover that not everything on the internet is true, the Russian TV station dispatched someone to approach the Russian Union of Engineers for a possible explanation of how the fake image came to be presented as authentic. Vladimir Saulyanov provided them with the perfect answer: “How could we check it?” he said. “It came to us from the internet.”
Opinion by Graham J Noble