Ex-Yandex news boss accuses Russian tech giant of ‘hiding info’ on Ukraine

2 Mar 2022

Image: © FellowNeko/Stock.adobe.com

It comes as platforms around the world take action against Russia’s state-backed media.

The former head of news at Russia’s largest tech company has called on past colleagues to quit, accusing the business of censoring the invasion of Ukraine.

Lev Gershenzon wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday (1 March) that Yandex, which is behind one of the biggest search engines in Russia, is “a key element in hiding information about the war”.

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“Today is the sixth day when on the main page of Yandex at least 30m Russian users see that there is no war … The fact that a significant part of the population of Russia may believe that there is no war is the basis and driving force of this war.”

The post, written in Russian, was tweeted and translated by journalist Ilya Lozovsky.

In it, Gershenzon directly addressed former colleagues, saying “it’s not too late to stop being partners in a terrible crime” and urging them to quit.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Gershenzon worked at Yandex for six years, as head of news and head of linguistics, until 2012 and is now CEO of a Berlin-based start-up called Detectum.

Like Russia’s answer to Google, Yandex provides online tools and services including a search engine, email system, news aggregator, and apps for navigation, translation and more. It also has e-commerce services and a ride-hailing business.

But the company has come under the microscope for its ties to the Kremlin, particularly when it comes to news aggregation.

In an interview with The New Yorker this week, Geshenzon explained that Yandex’s home page typically runs five headlines at a time, pulling from a small pool of state-controlled media outlets.

“The vast majority of the population doesn’t know that the Russian military has been waging full-scale war,” he claimed.

Reuters also reported last week that Yandex had started warning Russian users searching for news about Ukraine that there may be unreliable information online. This came after Moscow threatened to block media reports containing what it described as “false information” about the invasion.

The wider tech world

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last week, an international spotlight has been placed on Yandex.

Lithuania asked Google and Apple to remove Yandex’s ride-hailing app from their app stores, and Uber said it plans to “accelerate” its divestment from the taxi service.

There has also been an international focus on Russia’s state-backed media amid concerns about the spread of misinformation.

Twitter said this week that it is adding labels to all tweets that link to Russian state-affiliated media sites, such as RT and Sputnik.

Google has blocked apps related to RT and Sputnik from its Play store in Europe, while Apple is pulling the apps globally.

YouTube is blocking channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe, and TikTok is blocking the news organisations on its platform for users in the EU.

Meta has blocked Russian state-backed media from advertising and monetising around the world and is fact-checking and labelling content from these organisations. The company’s global affairs team said yesterday that further crackdowns are planned.

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Sarah Harford is sub-editor of Silicon Republic