Don’t panic Why the Russian news media has started reporting major gas explosions as adorable, harmless ‘pops’
In late 2019, many Internet users started noticing that the Russian state media was increasingly describing gas explosions as “gas pops” in news coverage — even when the incidents caused major damage to life and property. In fact, the number of “gas pops” mentioned in news reports jumped from a few dozen stories in early 2017 to thousands of such reports by January 2020. Meduza’s sources in the presidential administration and Russia’s security agencies say this is the result of a targeted policy to introduce more “favorable information conditions” meant to avoid a public panic when reporting gas explosions.
In the latter half of 2019, readers of Russia’s state media started drawing attention on social media to news reports about explosions, like natural-gas explosions, where the word “explosion” was bizarrely being replaced by the word “pop” (khlopok). This has repeatedly led to absurd headlines about a “gas pop” above a photograph showing a smoking ruins and a story about dozens of people being injured or even killed. For example, in December 2018, Izvestia cited regional officials from Russia’s Emergency Management Agency when describing a “gas pop” at a residential building in Magnitogorsk that killed 39 people. On social media, several readers have started asking if the strange editorial policy is the result of censorship.
When covering gas explosions in other countries, however, state-controlled and pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russia have avoided the same doublespeak. When a gas explosion injured seven people in Kazakhstan this January, for example, the Russian Defense Ministry’s television network, Zvezda, called it an explosion. Once again, Twitter users were quick to highlight the media’s apparent double standard.
At Meduza’s request, the media-monitoring firm “Medialogia” studied the use of the word “pop” in Russian news headlines and found that it started supplanting the word “explosion” last fall. In stories about the same events in recent months, the frequency of “gas pop” in news headlines has grown as the use of “gas explosion” has declined. In January 2020, the Russian media mentioned “gas pops” a record 1,300 times, which was four times more than in September 2017. (For comparison, Medialogia, which indexes 53,000 different sources, tracked just 58 instances of “gas pop” in news headlines.) In other words, the Russian media has systematically and simultaneously switched from “explosions” to “pops” when reporting these disasters.
What’s the difference between a pop and an explosion?
A “gas pop” is, in fact, a real technical term that has appeared for years in official documents, specialized literature, and service instructions. For example, the “RAO UES” electric holding company’s “Instructions for the Investigation and Accounting of Fires at Energy Facilities,” released in 2002, offers the following definitions of the terms “pop” and “explosion”:
A burst (or pop): The rapid combustion of a combustible mixture not accompanied by the formation of compressed gases capable of destroying structures or installations. An explosion: A rapid exothermic chemical transformation of an explosive environment accompanied by the release of energy and the formation of compressed gases capable of destroying structures or installations.
Basically, a “gas pop” is an explosion that causes no major destruction.
Maybe emergency workers simply misuse the specialized terminology, which then slips into the mass media through their official statements and confuses everyone, especially in cases when the damage caused by a gas explosion is visible with the naked eye.
For example, statements published on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website over the past decade show that the agency regularly uses the word “pop” in press releases with phrases like “gas-air-mixture pop,” regardless of the damage caused by these blasts. Even the first official reports about the 2009 Sayano-Shushenskaya power station accident, which killed 75 people, used this same term in statements like: “Power station personnel inside the engine room heard a loud pop in the area of the hydraulic unit.”
The agency’s press office provided Meduza with an excerpt from recommendations issued by its Civil Defense and Emergencies Research Institute, which guide the press office’s operations. The document says a “gas pop” and “gas explosion” differ in consequences and the latter can cause major damage. According to the beginning of the recommendations, however, the term “gas pop” should “be equivalent” to the technical term “gas explosion,” leaving the final choice over wording with the agency’s spokespeople.
Additionally, the agency’s local branches are also transmitting information “according to a principle of ‘incite as little panic as possible,’” a source in the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Meduza.
Perhaps the same logic guides Russia’s Investigative Committee when it issues a press release about a criminal probe into a deadly “gas pop” — the same explosion at a residential building outside Rostov pictured at the top of this story.
So is this incompetence or a deliberate policy?
Sources told Meduza that the rising use of “gas pop” in news coverage is neither an accident nor the result of bureaucratic jargon slipping unnoticed from official press releases into media reports. Like other examples of government newspeak — such as “saturation” (podtoplenie) instead of flooding and “combustion” (vozgoranie) instead of fire — the term “gas pop” is part of the Russian presidential administration’s information policy.
A source close to the Kremlin’s domestic policy team under Vyacheslav Volodin (who worked as first deputy chief of staff from 2011 to 2016 and now serves as the speaker of the State Duma) described the administration's policy in the following terms: “A gas pop is a classic example of favorable information conditions, where the emphasis is placed on good news and bad news is veiled. We hear nine stories about good news plus something about some gas pop. There are no disasters.”
Another source in Russia’s security apparatus confirmed to Meduza that the government pursues a policy of “reducing negativity” in the news. “I can say that there is definitely a push to understate damages,” says Meduza’s source. “If the emergency services report ‘combustion,’ it means everything’s already in flames. If they say there’s smoke, then it’s definitely on fire and maybe even a couple of people have burned up.”
Several sources told Meduza that Alexey Gromov, the Putin administration’s first deputy chief of staff, holds weekly meetings with the heads of press services at key government agencies whose reports are a main source of information for the national news agencies that in turn feed the entire Russian news media. In these briefings, Gromov outlines the main topics ahead in the week and issues instructions about the “correct” presentation of the government’s agenda. “When it comes to statements about important news events that arise unexpectedly, press-service directors coordinate directly with [Alexander] Smirnov [who oversees the Kremlin’s public relations and communications department] or even Gromov,” says Meduza’s source.
Another police source confirmed that the presidential administration tries to control the publication of information about emergencies, telling Meduza that not only press-service executives at government agencies but also the very heads of state news agencies sometimes coordinate the public release of information. “It’s not about saying black is white or white is black. It’s just that, in order to respond to an incident, you need to understand its scope and collect data, so it’s reasonable at first to avoid words like ‘explosion’ and write ‘pop,’ instead,” explains Meduza’s source.
Speaking to Meduza, a current presidential staff member (who asked not to be named) categorically denied that the administration has instructed any press services or news agencies to write “gas pop” when describing gas explosions. “Yes, we’re also surprised when we see these stories about pops. It honestly doesn’t look great. The presidential administration has never — not now or before — conveyed any wishes in this regard,” said Meduza’s source, who also suggested that the media is taking the word “pop” from initial statements issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency when emergency workers themselves still “scarcely understand what’s happened, which is why they use this term.”
A former correspondent for one of Russia’s leading news agencies, however, confirmed to Meduza the effort to ensure “favorable information conditions”: “It’s done to prevent a panic. The word ‘explosion’ is scary and negative, whereas ‘pop’ is somehow easier. In the vast majority of cases, news agencies will write about gas pops until some federal agency like FEMA, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, or the Federal Security Service declares it an explosion. And this isn’t even because they might get an angry phone call from someone high up, but simply because it’s better to play it safe. I never saw any specific instructions on this subject and I was never issued any direct guidelines — it’s just how it’s done. It’s customary.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock