By Jessica Brandt, Valerie Wirtschafter
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference, as seen on a television monitor in the White House briefing room in Washington, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (Sipa USA via Reuters Connect)
Moscow’s efforts to spread disinformation about the crisis in Ukraine began months ago—and it will only intensify as the conflict does. Across state and social media, the Kremlin is spreading its baseless justification for invading its neighbor: that Ukraine is perpetuating a genocide against Russian speaking people in the country’s east. This propaganda effort has included plans for a fabricated video of Ukrainian soldiers committing acts of violence against civilians and spurious claims that Kyiv’s forces planned an amphibious assault against Russian-backed separatists. All the while, the Kremlin continues to accuse the United States and its partners of spreading “war propaganda” and conducting “information terrorism.”
Russia’s propaganda offensive is aimed at building support for the invasion, both at home and in the eyes of the world, and technology companies are taking rapid measures to address the spread of Kremlin narratives on their platforms. Even as Russia has struggled to shape perceptions about the crisis in Ukraine, its state-backed propaganda performed surprisingly well on Google News. The California-based technology company announced on Tuesday that it would ban Russian state-backed outlets from its Google News search tool after Kremlin outlets performed well in searches related to the conflict.
Over the past week, the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus consistently returned the top search result for two key terms related to the conflict—“DPR” and “LPR,” abbreviations for the break-away regions in Ukraine’s east, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, respectively. On five of the past seven days, searches for “DPR” and “LPR” on Google News surfaced Russian state media as the top result. On each of the past seven days, for the same searches, Russian state media was among the top two results.
Searches for “DPR” and “LPR” in Google News, where Russian state media is more likely to surface than traditional search, overwhelmingly return Kremlin content. In the graphic below, we display the top 10 results for each search term and whether they come from Russian state media or another outlet.
TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency, dominates these results. Google News searches for “DPR” and “LPR” over the past week returned TASS articles calling for an end to “Kyiv’s aggression” and suggesting the existence of hundreds of mass graves containing the bodies of civilians—including women, children and the elderly – killed by Ukrainians in the Donbass since 2014. Other articles featured in our queries claimed that retreating Ukrainian forces were attempting “to inflict maximum damage on the local population” and that surrendered Ukrainian troops planned a “large-scale offensive in Donbass” that Russia’s “special military operation”—the Kremlin’s euphemism for the invasion—successfully thwarted, preventing a large number of civilian casualties.
To be sure, Google News searches for “LPR” and “DPR” represent just one avenue through which readers are learning about the conflict in Ukraine. While these two key terms related to the conflict are not the most common that users are searching for, the results they generate illustrate the myriad ways propaganda can reach readers online. By contrast, searches for “Donetsk,” “Donetsk People’s Republic,” “Luhansk,” or “Luhansk People’s Republic” lead users to what appear to be curated Google News pages that are populated with authoritative content.
For some search terms, the prevalence of Kremlin content in Google News results has shifted over the early course of the conflict. When Putin recognized the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk on Feb. 22, 40% of the top search results for “Kiev” (the Russian-rooted spelling of Ukraine’s capital, vs. “Kyiv,” the Ukranian-rooted spelling) returned Kremlin content, including the first and second search hits. Thereafter, Google News results for “Kiev” were less likely to return Russian state-media content, although Kremlin propaganda did not entirely disappear from search results.
Moscow has historically capitalized on search results, particularly within Google News, to press conspiracy theories and disinformation narratives. Following the downing of the MH17 passenger jet over eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, Russian propaganda outlets spread a multitude of conspiracy theories attempting to deflect blame, and these stories frequently showed up in Google News search results. When Russian operatives poisoned the Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, Russian disinformation once again appeared in Google News results.
It is not clear that the use of search engines to spread disinformation narratives is a deliberate tactic, as much as a byproduct of Kremlin propaganda apparatus’s ability to publish large amounts of content seeking to cast doubt on stories unfavorable to the Kremlin, about which there might not be a great deal of authoritative content. Importantly, our searches were conducted in English in the United States. Searches in other languages and countries could yield different results. Nevertheless, the prevalence of Russian state-backed media on Google News in English in the United States represents a serious vulnerability.
A feedback loop appears to be at play: Russian state media and state-backed Twitter accounts hammer key terms; people search for them and get corresponding results. That drives those individuals into an information bubble that the Kremlin can shape. The presence of Kremlin propaganda in Google News results is particularly problematic because search engines are a place people go to “do their research” and they expect neutral results—especially for news.
The information domain is a critical theater of war for the Kremlin. For weeks, Washington has been deploying a novel strategy of laying Putin’s propaganda plans bare—among other things, exposing the Kremlin’s efforts to fabricate multiple justifications for war and to undermine the morale of Ukranian soldiers with false reports about the widespread surrender of Ukranian forces. It is too soon for Western governments to declare victory in the information contest, but thus far, they have made a good showing.
Western technology companies too are working to curb the influence of Russian propaganda. On Monday, Twitter announced that it will label tweets linking to Russian state media and reduce the visibility and amplification of such content site-wide, no matter who it comes from. This means that tweets sharing Russian state media content won’t be amplified—they won’t appear in at the top of search results and won’t be recommended by Twitter. Microsoft also announced new moves to limit the exposure of Russian state propaganda, including removing RT news apps from the Windows app store and de-ranking these sites’ search results on Bing so that it will only return RT and Sputnik links “when a user clearly intends to navigate to those pages.”
Earlier today, Google announced that it has “significantly limited recommendations globally for a number of Russian state-funded media outlets” across its platforms and that it removed Russian state-funded publishers from Google News. It is unclear when this policy will come into effect (as of this writing, Google News still returns Russian-state media in its top search results) or how long it will remain in place. Over the long term, one approach short of an outright ban on Kremlin outlets could be to better anticipate the terms users might search for in crisis contexts and direct users toward authoritative results. Doing so could close a small but significant avenue through which Kremlin propaganda can gain a foothold in shaping public perceptions about geopolitical events.
Jessica Brandt is policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.
Valerie Wirtschafter is a senior data analyst in the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Google and Microsoft provides financial support to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization devoted to rigorous, independent, in-depth public policy research.