Searching the Internet in many places 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.
Shortly after 20 people were killed in a Russian missile attack on the Ukrainian town of Kremenchuk in June, Lev Gershenzon ? To find out more, the former manager of Russian technology company Yandex typed the name of the city into the company’s search engine.
He was shocked by the results.
“The fonts that appeared at the top of the page were strange and incomprehensible,” he told the BBC.
“There was a blog by an unknown author that claimed the information about the victims was false.”
The Kremlin has tight control over the country’s media, especially television, which praises the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a liberation mission and dismisses reports of atrocities as false.
In Russia, the Internet has long been the main site for alternative sources of information, but after the start of the war in February, the Kremlin launched an offensive against the online independent press.
Digital rights agency Roskomsvoboda estimates that around 7,000 websites were blocked in Russia in the first six months of the conflict, including those from major independent media and human rights groups.
BBC Monitoring, the BBC’s exclusive worldwide media coverage area, wanted to know what people in Russia are seeing when they search the internet these days.
We used a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to make it look like we were calling from Russia on the web.
Between June and October, we ran 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 biggest stars of the Russian tech scene. It is responsible for the largest search engine in the country and presents itself independently of the authorities.
According to the company’s own statistics, its own search engine is used for about 60% of the searches on the web in Russia, while Google is responsible for about 35%.
Since the beginning of the war, Yandex has come under criticism for the pro-Kremlin bias of websites and news featured in the news aggregator Yandex News. In September, it sold Yandex News to the owner of the Kremlin-linked social network VK.
But Yandex is in control of the general search engine – and the results of the BBC Watch experiment reveal an alternate reality dominated by Russian propaganda about the war.
No mention of atrocities
One of the subjects investigated was the Ukrainian town of Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops before retreating in early April.
The deaths shocked the world, but many in Russia seem to believe the state press version that they were staged by Ukraine.
When we searched for Bucha on Yandex – using a VPN and typing in Russian as if we were in Russia – the results homepage made it look like the murders never happened.
Three of the top nine results were anonymous blog posts refusing to interfere with Russian troops. The remaining six did not include independent reporting of events.
The discovery of a mass grave used for mass burial following Lyman’s withdrawal from Russian forces in October was also reflected in Yandex from a pro-Kremlin perspective. Several pro-Kremlin news articles blaming Ukrainian “Nazis” for the deaths were among the top 10 results.
A search for “Ukraine” on the search engine also produced results largely based on the Kremlin narrative.
Of the nine results on the front page, four were linked to pro-Kremlin media, and none to independent media.
Independent reports with links to Wikipedia or YouTube articles appeared only occasionally in Yandex search results.
Asked for comment by the BBC, Yandex said its Russia search “displayed content”. [que está] available on the Internet, excluding sites blocked by the regulatory agency [de mídia]And he denied that there was any “human interference” in the sequencing results.
So what happens if you switch from Yandex to Russia’s second largest search engine, Google?
Searching and typing in Russian on the US-based company’s search engine using the VPN we set to a location in Russia still yielded pro-Kremlin media output, but mixed with some independent and Western sources.
Even though we’re still writing in Russian, even more independent sources came up when we googled it with the VPN setup as if we were in the UK. There were many outcomes that dealt with civilian deaths or war.
Google told the BBC that its search “reflected content found on the open internet” and that its algorithm was trained to “display high-quality information prominently from trusted sources”.
So why are Yandex search results so different from Google?
Several experts the BBC spoke to said they believed it was unlikely that large-scale manipulation would take place within Yandex, as it would be too complex to do.
One possibility is that the company’s results were skewed by the Kremlin’s pressure on independent reporting on the occupation.
A large amount of information does not appear in Yandex search results, as thousands of websites are blocked by Russia’s media regulator.
“Them [as autoridades] “He can completely debug results,” Alexei Sokirko, a former Yandex developer, told the BBC.
He also added that the Kremlin has invested heavily in ensuring the creation of web content that reflects its worldview.
Guido Ampollini and Mykhailo Orlov, search experts at marketing firm GA Agency, say this could potentially skew the results users see on Yandex, as the search engine’s algorithm can reward pro-Kremlin material higher in rankings and lower the position of alternative views. .
Artificial web traffic
Can using a VPN help Russians learn more about war in their own language?
If they use Yandex to find this information, then it is not necessary.
This engine had a VPN set to the UK and a search using the Russian language yielded one or two independent sources, but still pro-Kremlin sources dominated.
Ampollini and Orlov say that pro-Kremlin content appears to have been carefully crafted for the algorithm to rank higher.
They found signs of possible manipulation of web traffic on an obscure news site that featured prominently in the results.
A large number of artificial links were found on external sites with the potential to return to the site, which is a common technique for improving a site’s ranking in search results.
Finally, Yandex may reflect that Russian users themselves choose pro-Kremlin content.
Search expert Nick Boyle of digital marketing agency The Audit Lab told the BBC that Yandex, unlike Google, takes user behavior into account.
This means, for example, that a website’s position in the search result page ranking can be affected by the number of visits. Google says this is not the case for the search engine.
The GA Agency team believes that many Russians clicked on content that positively portrayed their army, and wanted Yandex’s algorithm to reward them with higher ranks.
Lev Gershenzon believes that although the Kremlin dominates Yandex search results, this means that those who want to question what they have heard in the state media will only receive information confirming the official opinion.
“You open Yandex’s homepage and you get started. [procurando por] Kremenchuk [onde um ataque a míssil atingiu um shopping] to get an alternative view from other sources, and all you get is ‘yeah, you’re right, that’s fake’ – and that’s it,” he told the BBC.
– This text is published https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-63622918