Type “Boutcha” in Google and in Yandex, the main Russian search engine, you will not get the same images. On one side, snapshots of the devastated city, on the other, images of an untouched Boutcha, with its pretty pink houses with blue roofs.
After a month of Russian strikes and occupation, the kyiv region was liberated on April 2. In Boutcha, not far from the Ukrainian capital, soldiers and journalists discovered traces of massacres and war crimes. However, online, Internet users who would like to learn about the conflict by querying their search engines are witnesses, without necessarily knowing it, of another part of the ongoing war: that of information.
Search results for “Буча(Boutcha) on April 13, 2022 on Google and Yandex. | Screenshots / Mathilde Saliou
Content oriented by their target
Worldwide, nearly two out of three online searches are made through Google. But that in no way means that the results will be the same depending on whether the question is formulated from France, South Africa or Canada. In June 2021, scientists Katherine Ye and Rodrigo Ochigame published the Search Atlas, which demonstrated the differences in results offered by Google depending on the geographical area. Search the word “God”, for example. From Europe you will get images of an old, bearded white man. From the Middle East, it will be rather calligraphies of the word “Allah”. And from Cambodia or Mongolia, representations of the Buddha.
Planisphere of search results given by Google for the word “God”. | Assembly Search Atlas / Katherine Ye, Rodrigo Ochigame
These variations in results are not serious. in itself. The goal of a Google, Safari, or Yandex is to provide you with the most relevant results based on the words you submit to them. However, depending on your cultural environment, it is quite logical that you do not consider religion, politics or even climate change in the same way.
Furthermore, says Rodrigo Ochigame, “all these tools must necessarily respond to different types of pressure: economic objectives, technical obligations, political regulations, even… In this, it is not very surprising that Yandex, which is installed in Russia, must respond to different guidelines from Google”, headquartered in the United States. All of these factors influence the information you get when you search online.
In June 2021, Rodrigo Ochigame and Katherine Ye already noted that research “Crimean annexation” referred to different proposals depending on whether it was performed on the Ukrainian version of Google, or its Russian version. In the first case, all of the results evoked an occupation, in the second, most of the results debated Crimea’s membership of the Russian Federation. The same research conducted from Holland offered angled answers on the sanctions taken by the European Union against Russia.
Research results “Annexation of Crimea” formulated mid-2021. | Screenshot via Search Atlas / Katherine Ye, Rodrigo Ochigame
For the purposes of this article, the scientists gave access to their atlas to Slate. The results also vary according to the language used, so we searched “Boutcha” through different transcriptions (“Bucha” in English, “Bucha” in Russian). The results are less divided than between Yandex and Google, but they vary all the same: the first links that the Russian version suggests seek to reconstruct what happened in the city, while those of the Ukrainian Google present it directly as a heroic city. From France, the first responses offer estimates as precise as possible of the number of deaths.
If we now turn to the theory of “denazification of Ukraine” than Putin puts forward to explain the attack, Google’s results diverge much more. From Russia, we debate the presence of Nazis in Ukraine. From France, Google offers fact-checking articles dismantling this thesis. From Ukraine, the first four links look at WWII history rather than current events. And all that changes quickly: five days later, the Ukrainian results have largely changed, to counter the Russian discourse.
Search results “Nazis in Ukraine” formulated on April 15, 2022. | Screenshot via Search Atlas / Mathilde Saliou
Neutrality does not exist
So, how to do? Learn about wartime propaganda? Even then, Google offers very different stories depending on the geographical area: from Russia, several links suggest that Ukraine is lying. From the Ukraine, the propaganda is described as being made by the Russians. From France, many links speak of the largest “propaganda war” to date. “If you are looking for perfectly neutral results, you will not succeed, explains Rodrigo Ochigame: no search engine exists outside of its political context.”
The main thing, says the doctoral student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is that Internet users are aware of these mechanisms, and “that they consider the results of their research critically”.
A specialist in disinformation phenomena, Iris Boyer agrees: “The important thing is to take a step back. If you are in the country and, in addition, you are convinced of the validity of the policies it pursues, you will not necessarily ask yourself the question of the validity of the information received. This may explain the stories of Russian families living in France who come up against a wall of misunderstanding from their relatives back home.
The reverse mechanics is also true, points out Iris Boyer: “If we are convinced that the media are lying to us, we can decide to only get information from supposedly independent sources. In the case of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, this means, for example, trusting only entities like Russia Today, Sputnik”notoriously linked to the Kremlin, or others.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has been following various disinformation phenomena for several years, has rightly observed that in France, the “anti-system” communities are very porous to Russian propaganda. “To the classic east/west division, we see an added line of demarcation between the spheres which have relatively confidence in the French information landscape and those which have rejected it”adds Boyer.
Moreover, as the Search Atlas shows, these geopolitical divisions are not only visible in times of war, but also in times of peace. In their scientific article, Rodrigo Ochigame and Katherine Ye take the example of the question of abortion: if you seek information on the subject from France, you will find practical elements. Since Poland, on the other hand, a very conservative country on the issue, the results sent by the engine are mainly linked to miscarriages.
The specificity of the context of war, “it is that it has a magnifying effectbelieves Iris Boyer. By looking at search engine results, we may have a first idea of what a splinternet»from the name of this fragmented internet feared by many proponents of a single, free and open internet. “In any case, it gives a much clearer picture of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic view of the online world.” After all, this one uses “all the legislative and technical resources at its disposal to increase propaganda and accentuate the confinement of the population”.