- By Adam Robinson, Olga Robinson, Kayleen Devlin
- BBC monitoring
In many places, web searching is a gateway to a larger world of information. But in Russia, it’s part of a system that traps people…
Shortly after 20 people were killed in a Russian missile attack on the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk in June, Lev Gershenzon, a former head of Russian technology firm Yandex, typed the city’s name into his search engine to find out more.
The results he got shocked him.
“The sources that appeared at the top of the page were strange and vague. There was a blog by an unknown author who claimed that the information about the victims was false,” he told the BBC.
The Kremlin maintains a stranglehold on the country’s media, especially television, which glorifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a liberation mission and spews false reports of atrocities.
In Russia, the Internet has long been the main space for alternative sources of information. But since the war broke out 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 – some 7,000 websites were blocked in Russia, 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 make it look like we were browsing 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. It manages the largest search engine in the country and wants to be independent from the authorities.
According to the company’s statistics, it handles 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 orientation of pages and articles featured in 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 overall search engine, and here the results of the BBC Monitoring experiment reveal an alternate reality dominated by Russian war propaganda.
No mention of atrocities
One of the subjects sought was 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 seem to believe that state media claims it was staged by Ukraine.
When we searched for Bucha on Yandex – using a VPN, as if we were located 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 the involvement of Russian troops. The other six did not contain any independent reports of events.
The discovery of mass burial sites in October in the town of Lyman, after it was retaken by Russian forces, was also mentioned in Yandex, in the spirit of pro-Kremlin patronage. Several pro-Kremlin messages blaming Ukrainian “Nazis” for the deaths were in the top 10 results.
Searching for the word “Ukraine” in the search engine, similarly, also returned results on pro-Kremlin content.
Four of the nine first page results were linked to pro-Kremlin media and none to independent media.
Independent reporting appeared only occasionally in Yandex search results, with links to Wikipedia or YouTube articles.
Asked by the BBC, Yandex said its search in Russia “displays the content [qui est] available online, excluding sites that are blocked by the regulator [des médias]The company denied any “human intervention” in ranking the results.
What happens if you switch from Yandex to Google, the second largest search engine in Russia?
Searching the US company’s search engine with our VPN set to a Russian location and typing in Russian, we still found pro-Kremlin media, but mixed with some independent and Western sources.
Even more independent sources came up when we googled with a VPN set as if we were in the UK, but still typing in Russian. There were many results covering 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 specialists interviewed by the BBC said that large-scale manipulation is unlikely to happen inside Yandex, as it would be too complicated to do.
One possibility is that the company’s results are simply skewed by the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent reporting on the invasion.
With thousands of websites blocked by the Russian media regulator, a range of information does not appear in Yandex search results.
“They [les autorités] can completely clean up the results,” Alexei Sokirko, a former Yandex developer, told the BBC.
At the same time, the Kremlin spends heavily to ensure that Internet content reflects its worldview, he added.
Research experts Guido Ampollini and Mykhailo Orlov of marketing firm GA Agency say it could also skew the results users see on Yandex, as the search engine’s algorithm can reward pro-Kremlin material with a higher rank and lower opinions alternative.
Artificial web traffic
Can using a VPN help Russians learn about the war in their own language?
If they use Yandex to find this information, not necessarily.
When he searched his engine with the VPN set in the UK and using Russian, the odd independent source came up, but pro-Kremlin sources still dominated.
According to Mr. Ampollini and Orlov, the pro-Kremlin content appears to be carefully tailored so that the algorithm ranks it better.
As for an unknown news site that appeared prominently in the results, they also found signs of possible web traffic manipulation.
A large number of potentially artificial links on the site were found from external websites – a common technique for improving a site’s search ranking.
Finally, Yandex may reflect the fact that Russian users themselves select pro-Kremlin content.
Research specialist Nick Boyle, of 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 hits it receives. Google claims this is not the case for its search engine.
The GA team thought it was possible that many Russians clicked on content that portrayed their military in a positive light, causing Yandex’s algorithm to reward them with a higher ranking.
“It’s like a double punch”
Lev Gershenzon believes that however the Kremlin has managed to 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] from Kremenchuk to get an alternative image from other sources, and all you get is everything,” he told the BBC, adding: “It’s like a double punch.”