The Ukraine-Russia War: When the Internet Kept Russians in the Dark
- Adam Robinson, Olga Robinson, Kaylin Devlin
- BBC Monitoring
In many places, searching the Internet is the gateway to a wider world of information. But in Russia, it is part of a system that traps people…
Shortly after a Russian rocket attack on the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk in June killed 20 people, Lev Gershenzon, the former head of Russian tech firm Yandex, entered the city’s name into a search engine to find out more information.
The results he got shocked him.
“The sources that appeared at the top of the page were strange and obscure. An unknown author had a blog and he claimed that the information about the victims was false,” he told the BBC.
The Kremlin is cracking down on the country’s media, especially television, which praises Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a mission of liberation and spreads false reports of atrocities.
In Russia, the Internet has long been the main space for alternative sources of information. But since the start of the war in February, the Kremlin has cracked down on independent online media.
Digital rights watchdog Roskomsvoboda estimates that nearly 7,000 websites were blocked in Russia in the first six months of the conflict, including those of major independent media and human rights groups.
BBC Monitoring wanted to know what Russians see when they search the internet.
We used a virtual private network (VPN) to browse the web from Russia.
Between June and October, we conducted dozens of searches on the main Russian search engines – Yandex and Google – for keywords related to the war in Ukraine.
Yandex is one of the biggest stars of the Russian tech scene. He runs the largest search engine in the country and wants to be independent from the authorities.
According to the company’s statistics, it controls about 60% of Internet searches in Russia, compared to 35% for Google.
Since the beginning of the war, Yandex has been criticized for the pro-Kremlin bias of sites and articles on its news aggregator, Yandex News. In September, he sold Yandex News to the owner of the Kremlin-linked social network VK.
But Yandex retains control of its public search engine, where the results of the BBC Monitoring experiment reveal an alternate reality dominated by Russian war propaganda.
There is no mention of atrocities
One of the subjects sought was Bucha, Ukraine, where hundreds of civilians were killed before Russian troops retreated in early April.
This murder shocked the whole world. However, many in Russia believe those who claim that the state media is staged by Ukraine.
When I searched for Bucha on Yandex – using a VPN, pretending to live in Russia and writing in Russian – the first page of results showed that the murders had never happened.
Three of the top nine results were anonymous blog posts denying the involvement of Russian troops. Six others had no independent reports of the incidents.
The discovery of mass graves in the city of Lyman after it was recaptured from Russian troops in October was also mentioned in Yandex in a pro-Kremlin spirit. Several pro-Kremlin posts blaming the death on Ukrainian “Nazis” appeared in the top 10 results.
A search for the word “Ukraine” in the search engine also resulted in pro-Kremlin content.
Of the nine results on the first page, four were linked to pro-Kremlin news outlets and none to independent media.
The independent report only occasionally appears in Yandex search results with links to Wikipedia or YouTube articles.
Asked by the BBC, Yandex shows the content of its search in Russia [qui est] available on the Internet, except for sites blocked by the regulator [des médias]The company denied any “human interference” in ranking the results.
What if you switch from Yandex to Google, the second largest search engine in Russia?
Searching in the search engine of a US company with our VPN set to the Russian location and typing in Russian, we still found pro-Kremlin media, but mixed in a few independent and Western sources.
When I googled with a VPN set as if I was in the UK, but still typing in Russian, more independent sources appeared. There were many consequences involving either civilian deaths or war.
Google told the BBC that its search “reflects content available on the open web” and that its algorithm is trained to “highlight high-quality information from trusted sources”.
So why are Yandex’s search results so different from Google’s?
Several experts interviewed by the BBC said that large-scale manipulation within Yandex is impossible because it is too complicated to do.
One possibility is that the company’s results are simply skewed by Kremlin pressure on independent reporting on the invasion.
With thousands of websites blocked by Russia’s media regulator, many data do not appear in Yandex’s search results.
“They [les autorités] can completely clean up the results,” former Yandex developer Alexey Sokirko told the BBC.
At the same time, the Kremlin spends a lot of money to ensure that web content reflects its worldview, he added.
Guido Ampollini and Mykhailo Orlov, research experts at marketing firm GA Agency, say it could also distort the results users see on Yandex, as the search engine’s algorithm may reward pro-Kremlin material more highly and downplay alternative reviews.
Artificial web traffic
Could using a VPN help Russians learn about the war in their own language?
Not necessarily if they use Yandex to find this information.
Searching the engine with a UK-based VPN and using Russian did turn up the odd independent source, but Kremlin-oriented sources still dominated.
According to the ladies. Ampollini and Orlov carefully designed the algorithm to better rank pro-Kremlin content.
When it came to an obscure news site that featured prominently in the results, they also found signs of possible web traffic manipulation.
A large number of potential artificial links to the site from external websites were found – this is a common method to improve the search ranking of the site.
Finally, Yandex may reflect Russian users’ preference for pro-Kremlin content.
Nick Boyle, a research specialist at the digital marketing agency The Audit Lab, told the BBC that unlike Google, Yandex takes user behavior into account.
This means that, for example, a website’s search ranking can be affected by the number of visits it receives. Google claims this is not the case for its search engine.
The GA team believed that many Russians clicked on content showing their military in a positive light, prompting Yandex’s algorithm to reward them with a higher rank.
“It’s like a double punch”
Lev Gershenzon believes that while the Kremlin may dominate Yandex’s search results, this means that anyone who wants to question what they hear in state media will only get information that confirms the official point of view.
“You open the main page of Yandex and start [rechercher l’attaque] Getting an alternative image from sources other than Kremenchuk and all you get is… everything,” he said, adding, “It’s like a double punch.”