Ukraine war: Russians kept in the dark by internet search

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

Shortly after 20 people were killed in a Russian missile attack on the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk in June, Lev Gershenzon – a former manager at Russian tech company Yandex – typed the city’s name into its search engine to find out more.

The results he got back shocked him.

“The sources that ranked at the top of the page were strange and obscure,” he told the BBC. “There was one blog by an unknown author claiming that the information about casualties was fake.”

The Kremlin keeps a tight grip on the country’s media, especially TV, which glorifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a mission of liberation and dismisses reports of atrocities as fake.

The internet in Russia was for a long time the main space for alternative sources of information, but after starting the war in February the Kremlin 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 those of major independent media and human rights groups.

Our experiment

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

We used a virtual private network (VPN), so it would appear as though we were searching the web from Russia.

Between June and October, we carried out dozens of searches on Russia’s top search engines – Yandex and Google – for key words relating to the war in Ukraine.

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

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

From the start of the war, Yandex faced criticism for the pro-Kremlin slant of the sites and stories featured on its news aggregator, Yandex News. In September, it sold Yandex News to the Kremlin-linked owner of social network VK.

But Yandex retains control of its general search engine, and here, the results of BBC Monitoring’s experiment reveal an alternative reality dominated by Russian propaganda about the war.

Source: bbc