The Ukrainian-Russian War: When the Internet Keeps Russia in the Dark
- By Adam Robinson, Olga Robinson, Kayleen Devlin
- BBC monitoring
In many places, browsing the web is a gateway to a larger world of information. But in Russia, he is part of a system that traps people…
Shortly after 20 people were killed in a Russian missile strike on the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk in June, Lev Gershenzon, former head of Russian technology company Yandex, typed the town’s name into his search engine to find out more. .
The results he obtained surprised him.
“The source that appears at the top of the page is strange and unclear. There is a blog by an unknown author, which states that the information about the victim is false,” he told the BBC.
The Kremlin maintains a grip on state media, especially television, which glorifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a liberation mission and provides false reporting of atrocities.
In Russia, the Internet has long been the main space for alternative sources of information. But since the outbreak of war in February, the Kremlin has launched a crackdown on independent online media.
Digital rights watchdog Roskomsvoboda estimates that – in the first six months of the conflict – nearly 7,000 websites were blocked in Russia, including mainstream independent media and human rights groups.
BBC Monitoring wants to know what Russians see when they search the internet.
We use a virtual private network (VPN), to make it look like we are browsing the web from Russia.
Between June and October, we conducted dozens of searches on Russia’s main search engines – Yandex and Google – for keywords related to the war in Ukraine.
Yandex is one of the big stars of the Russian tech world. It manages the largest search engine in the country and wants to be independent vis-à-vis the authorities.
According to the company’s statistics, it handles about 60% of web searches in Russia, compared to 35% for Google.
From the start of the war, Yandex was criticized for the site’s pro-Kremlin orientation and for the pro-Kremlin articles featured 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 over its general search engine, and here the results of the BBC Monitoring experiment reveal an alternate reality dominated by Russian wartime propaganda.
No mention of cruelty
One of the subjects wanted is Bucha, the Ukrainian town where hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops before their withdrawal in early April.
This murder shocked the whole world. But in Russia, many believe state media claimed it was staged by Ukraine.
When we searched for Bucha on Yandex – using a VPN, as if we were based in Russia and typing in Russian – the first page of results looked like the murders never happened.
Three of the top nine results were anonymous blog posts denying Russian troop involvement. The other six contained no independent accounts of the events.
The discovery of a mass burial site in October in the town of Lyman, after it was retaken from Russian troops, was also mentioned on Yandex, in a spirit of pro-Kremlin patronage. Some pro-Kremlin dispatches blamed the deaths on “Nazis” Ukraine was in the top 10 results.
Searching for the word “Ukraine” in a search engine, also returns results for pro-Kremlin content.
Four of the nine front page results were associated with pro-Kremlin news outlets, and none were associated with independent media.
Independent reporting only occasionally appears in Yandex search results, with links to Wikipedia articles or YouTube.
Asked by the BBC, Yandex said its search in Russia “turned up content [qui est] available on the Internet, excluding sites blocked by regulators [des médias]The company denies any “human interference” in the rankings.
What happens if you switch from Yandex to Google, Russia’s second largest search engine?
Browsing US corporate search engines with our VPN set to a Russian location, and typing in Russian, we still found pro-Kremlin media, but mixed in with some independent and Western sources.
Even more independent sources turned up when we Googled with a VPN set as if we were in the UK, but still typing in Russian. There are many outcomes that include civilian deaths or war.
Google told the BBC that its search “reflects the content available on the open web” and its algorithms are trained to “highlight high-quality information from trusted sources”.
So why are Yandex search results so different from Google?
Several specialists interviewed by the BBC said it was unlikely that large-scale manipulation would occur within Yandex, as it would be too complicated to carry out.
One possibility is that the company’s results have only been skewed by the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent reporting of the invasion.
With thousands of websites blocked by Russian media regulators, a lot of information doesn’t show up in Yandex search results.
“They [les autorités] can really clean up the result,” Alexei Sokirko, a former Yandex developer, told the BBC.
At the same time, the Kremlin is spending heavily to ensure that web content reflects its own worldview, he added.
Research experts Guido Ampollini and Mykhailo Orlov of marketing firm GA Agency say it can also skew the results users see on Yandex, as search engine algorithms can reward pro-Kremlin material with higher ratings and lower alternative opinions.
Artificial web traffic
Can using a VPN help Russians learn about war in their own language?
If they use Yandex to find this information, not necessarily.
When browsing his machine with the VPN set to English and using Russian, the odd independent source popped up, but pro-Kremlin sources still predominated.
According to gentlemen. Ampollini and Orlov, the pro-Kremlin content seems to have been carefully designed for the algorithm to rank better.
As for the obscure news sites that stood out in the results, they also found signs of possible manipulation of web traffic.
A large number of potentially artificial links to sites are found from external websites – a common technique for increasing a site’s search ranking.
Finally, Yandex may reflect the fact that Russian users themselves choose pro-Kremlin content.
Research specialist Nick Boyle, from digital marketing agency The Audit Lab, told the BBC that – unlike Google – Yandex takes user behavior into account.
This means, for example, that 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 agency team thought maybe many Russians were clicking on content that portrayed their military in a positive light, prompting the Yandex algorithm to give them a higher rating.
“It’s like a double whammy”
Lev Gershenzon believes that however the Kremlin has managed to dominate Yandex search results, that means anyone who wants to question what they hear in state media will only get information that confirms the official point of view.
“You go to the main Yandex page and you start [rechercher l’attaque] from Kremenchuk to receive alternative images from other sources, and all you get…is everything,” he told the BBC, adding: “It’s like a double whammy.”