Ukrainian war. Internet search keeps Russians in the dark

  • By Adam Robinson, Olga Robinson and Cailin Devlin
  • BBC monitoring

In many places, searching the Internet is a gateway to a wider world of information, but in Russia it is part of a system that helps trap people in an alternate reality.

The results he got shocked him.

“The sources at the top of the page were strange and unclear,” he told the BBC. “There was one blog by an unknown author that claimed the victim information was false.”

The Kremlin tightly controls the country’s media, especially television, which glorifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a liberation mission and dismisses reports of atrocities as false.

In Russia, the Internet has long been a mainstay of alternative sources of information, but since the start of the war in February, the Kremlin has begun cracking down on independent online media.

Digital rights watchdog Roskomsvoboda estimates that nearly 7,000 websites were blocked in Russia during the first six months of the conflict, including those of major independent media and human rights organizations.

Our experience

BBC Monitoring wanted to find out what people in Russia are seeing when they search the web now.

We were using a virtual private network (VPN), so it looked like we were browsing the web from Russia.

Between June and October, we conducted dozens of searches on Russia’s leading search engines, Yandex and Google, for keywords related to the war in Ukraine.

Yandex is one of the big stars in Russia’s home tech scene. It runs the country’s largest search engine and presents itself as independent from the authorities.

According to the company’s own statistics, it handles about 60% of web searches in Russia, while Google is responsible for about 35%.

Since the start of the war, Yandex has been criticized in its news aggregator for a pro-Kremlin slant by sites and stories featured in Yandex News. in September, Yandex News was sold to the owner of the Kremlin-linked social network VK.

But Yandex retains control of its overall search engine, and the results of the BBC Monitoring experiment here reveal an alternate reality dominated by Russian war propaganda.

One subject of the search was Bucha, the Ukrainian town where hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops before they withdrew in early April.

image caption,

Yandex results for the killings of civilians in Bucha appear to be in Russia (left), showing blog posts denying Russian culpability, while Google results in the UK spoke of evidence of atrocities.

When we searched for Bucha on Yandex using a VPN, pretending to be located in Russia and typing in Russian, the top page of results showed that the murders never happened.

Three of the nine top results were anonymous blog posts denying the involvement of Russian troops. The remaining six contained no independent reporting of events.

The discovery of mass graves in the city of Lyman in October, after it was retaken from Russian forces, also reflected a pro-Kremlin view on Yandex. Several pro-Kremlin news in which Ukrainian “Nazis” were killed appeared in the top 10 results.

image source, LiveJournal:

image caption,

A typical pro-Kremlin blog post that ranked high in Yandex search results, denying that the Russian military killed civilians in Bucha.

Similarly, a search for “Ukraine” also produced results heavily skewed to the Kremlin narrative.

Of the nine results on the front page, four are linked to pro-Kremlin news outlets and none to independent media.

Reviews of independent reports only occasionally appeared in Yandex search results with links to Wikipedia articles or YouTube.

Asked by the BBC for comment, Yandex said its search in Russia was “showing content [that is] available on the Internet, except for sites that are blocked [media] It denied that there was “human interference” in the ranking results.

image caption,

Results on both Yandex in Russia (left) and Google in the UK (right) covered the mass burials in Lyman, but reports in Yandex described the exhumation as “desecration”.

So what happens if you switch from Yandex to Russia’s second largest search engine, Google?

Searching for our VPN with a Russian location in the US-based company’s search engine and typing in Russian still brought up pro-Kremlin media, but mixed in with some independent and Western sources.

Even more independent sources came up when we searched on Google with a VPN as if we were in the UK, even though we were still writing in Russian. There were many results related to either civilian casualties or war.

Google told the BBC that its search “reflects content that is available on the open web” and its algorithm is designed to “prominently display high-quality information from trusted sources”.

Cleaning up the results

So why are Yandex search results so different from Google?

Several experts who spoke to the BBC said it was unlikely that large-scale manipulation would take place inside Yandex, as it would be too difficult to do.

One possibility is that the company’s results are simply skewed by Kremlin pressure on independent reporting of the invasion.

Because thousands of sites have been blocked by Russia’s media regulator, A huge amount of information does not appear in Yandex search results.

image caption,

Yandex search results for “Ukraine” appearing to be based in Russia (left) are dominated by pro-Kremlin media and show no independent media sources, while Google results appear to be based in the UK (right) gave only western messages.

“They [the authorities] can completely clean the results,” former Yandex developer Alexey Sokirko told the BBC.

At the same time, the Kremlin is spending heavily to ensure that web content is created to reflect its own worldview, he added.

Search experts Guido Ampolini and Mykhailo Orlov of the GA Agency marketing firm said it could also skew the results users see on Yandex, as the search engine’s algorithm could reward pro-Kremlin material with higher rankings and alternative views with lower rankings.

Artificial web traffic

Could using a VPN help Russians learn more about the war in their own language?

If they use Yandex to find that information, then not necessarily.

Searching his engine with a UK-based VPN and using Russian turned up the odd independent source, but pro-Kremlin sources still dominated.

Mr. Ampolini and Mr. Orlov say the pro-Kremlin content appears to be carefully crafted to get the algorithm to rank it higher.

And with one obscure news site that stood out in the results, they also found signs of possible web traffic manipulation.

A large number of potentially artificial links to a website are detected from external websites, a common technique to improve a website’s search ranking.


image caption,

Many civilians were killed as a result of Russian air strikes on Ukrainian cities

Finally, Yandex may be reflecting the fact that Russian users are self-selecting pro-Kremlin content.

Search expert 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 site’s search ranking can be affected by the number of visits. Google says this is not the case for its search engine.

The GA team found it possible that many Russians are clicking on content that positively portrays their military, resulting in Yandex’s algorithm rewarding it with higher rankings.

Lev Gershenzon believes that regardless of how the Kremlin’s dominance of Yandex search results was achieved, it means that anyone who wants to question what they hear in state media will only get the official view supporting information.

“You open the main page of Yandex and start [searching for the] Kremenchuk [attack] get an alternative picture from other sources, and all you get is ‘yeah, well, you’re right, it’s fake’, and that’s it,” he told the BBC. “It’s like a double whammy.”

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