Ukraine war | Web searches are often a tool to access a larger universe of knowledge, but in Russia, they are a component of a system that keeps people trapped in a false reality.
Lev Gershenzon, a former manager at the Russian internet giant Yandex, entered the city’s name into its search engine shortly after 20 people were murdered in a Russian missile assault on the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk in June to learn more.
He was astonished by the findings he received.
Ukraine war | He told the BBC that “the sources that ranked at the top of the page were weird and esoteric.” A blog with an anonymous author claimed that the reports of casualties were false.
The Kremlin maintains tight control over the nation’s media, particularly television, which praises Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a liberation mission and scorns stories of massacres as untrue.
Long before the conflict began in February, the internet in Russia served as the primary platform for alternative news sources. However, after the war began, the Kremlin began to crack down on independent online media.
Nearly 7,000 websites, including those of significant independent media and human rights organizations, were reportedly blocked in Russia in the first six months of the war, according to digital rights watchdog Roskomsvoboda.
Ukraine war | BBC Monitoring wants to know what Russians are now finding online.
A virtual private network (VPN) was employed to make it seem like we were doing an online search from Russia.
We conducted thousands of searches between June and October using the biggest search engines in Russia, Yandex and Google, seeking keywords associated with the conflict in Ukraine.
One of the prominent figures in Russia’s domestic IT landscape is Yandex. It touts itself as independent of the government and operates the biggest search engine in the nation.
According to business data, it handles around 60% of Russian web searches, with Google accounting for the remaining 35%.
Yandex was criticized for the pro-Kremlin tilt of the websites and articles carried on their news aggregator, Yandex News, from the beginning of the conflict. In September, it sold Yandex News to the proprietor of the social network VK, who has ties to the Kremlin.
However, the BBC Monitoring experiment’s findings show that Yandex still maintains control over its general search engine, which is dominated by Russian military propaganda.
No mention of atrocities
Ukraine war | One subject looked up was Bucha, a Ukrainian town where Russian soldiers massacred many people before withdrawing in early April.
The fatalities horrified the whole world, but many people in Russia appear to accept the official media’s claim that Ukraine manufactured the deaths.
While Google’s results in the UK discussed evidence of crimes, Yandex’s results concerning the murders of civilians in Bucha as if they were based in Russia (left) contained blog articles claiming Russia is at fault.
Using a VPN to seem to be based in Russia and entering in Russian, we searched for Bucha on Yandex, and the first page of results made it appear as though the deaths had never happened.
Three of the top nine results were unidentified blog articles that refuted the presence of Russian forces. There was no independent reporting of the occurrences in the remaining six.
Yandex also included a pro-Kremlin perspective on the October mass grave sites found in Lyman after it was retaken from Russian forces. The top 10 results included several pro-Kremlin news articles attributing the killings to Ukrainian “Nazis.”
A typical pro-Kremlin blog article debunking claims that Russian soldiers killed civilians in Bucharest was highly rated in Yandex search results.
The identical search method for “Ukraine” on the search engine yielded results that were substantially biased in favor of the Kremlin’s viewpoint.
There were links to four pro-Kremlin news sources on the first page and none to independent media.
Rarely did Yandex search results with links to YouTube or Wikipedia articles show signs of independent reporting.
The BBC contacted Yandex for comment, and Yandex said that their search in Russia “displays content [that is] available on the internet, except sites which the [media] regulator restricts.” It disputed the existence of any “human intervention” with the rankings.
Results for the mass graves in Lyman were found on both Yandex in Russia (left) and Google in the UK (right); however, on Yandex, the stories described the exhumation of the dead as “desecration.”
Consequently, what happens if you go to Google, Russia’s second-largest search engine?
With our VPN configured to a Russian location, we could use the US-based corporation’s search engine to find Russian-language news sites alongside some independent and Western ones.
When we searched Google while still typing in Russian and with the VPN configured to the UK, more unbiased sources showed up. Several findings dealt with either the fighting or the deaths of civilians.
According to Google, its search “reflects the content available on the open web,” and its algorithm is programmed to “prominently reveal high-quality information from credible sources,” the BBC said.
Cleansing the results
Then why were Yandex’s search results so drastically different from Google’s?
Numerous experts who talked with the BBC said they didn’t think it was plausible that Yandex was involved in widespread manipulation since it would be difficult to pull off.
One possibility is that the Kremlin’s assault on unbiased coverage of the incursion is simply skewing the company’s statistics.
Huge portions of material are absent from Yandex’s search results due to the media regulator in Russia blocking hundreds of websites.
Pro-Kremlin media predominated in Yandex’s search results for “Ukraine” when it appeared to be headquartered in Russia (left). In contrast, when it appeared to be based in the UK (right), Google’s results contained solely Western reportage.
“They [the authorities] can fully sanitize the results,” former Yandex coder Alexei Sokirko told the BBC.
Additionally, he noted that the Kremlin invests a lot of money to ensure that web material reflects its ideology.
This may also bias the results people see in Yandex, according to search specialists Guido Ampollini and Mykhailo Orlov from the marketing agency GA Agency, since the search engine’s algorithm may favor pro-Kremlin content and downrank other viewpoints.
Artificial web traffic
Ukraine war | Can Russians learn more about the conflict in their language by using a VPN?
Not necessarily if they are utilizing Yandex to look for such information.
The rare independent source appeared while searching its engine in Russian and with the VPN set to the UK, but pro-Kremlin sources predominated.
According to Mr. Ampollini and Mr. Orlov, the pro-Kremlin content appears to have been meticulously crafted to raise its algorithmic ranking.
They also discovered indications of potential online traffic manipulation with one obscure news site that was prominent in the rankings.
Many potentially fake connections to the website were discovered on other websites, which is a systematic method to raise a website’s search engine position.
Russian airstrikes on Ukrainian cities have resulted in the deaths of several people.
Finally, Yandex could reflect the reality that Russian users favor Kremlin-friendly information.
Digital marketing company The Audit Lab’s search expert Nick Boyle told the BBC that Yandex considers user behavior in contrast to Google.
This implies, for instance, that the number of visitors to a website may have an impact on its search engine ranking. According to Google, this is not true of its search engine.
The GA Agency team hypothesized that since many Russians click on information that favorably reflects their military, Yandex’s algorithm may favor such content by giving it better results.
According to Lev Gershenzon, whoever wants to challenge what they hear on state media will only find material validating the official position because the Kremlin dominated Yandex’s search results.
He told the BBC, “You open the Yandex home page and start [looking for the Kremenchuk [attack] to obtain some different picture from other sources, and all you get is that ‘oh yes, you’re right, it’s phony’ – and that’s it. “It’s like two punches at once.”