Image Circulation of Russian State-Controlled and Independent Media on Google.com and Yandex.ru
Alberto Federico Olivieri, Alice Noris, Giovanni Daniele Starita, Richard Rogers
Summary of Key Findings
- Russian-language, state-controlled and Russian-language, independent media seem, at least in our sample, to offer "muffled" and less dramatic images of the war/special operation on their social media pages than those of western media.
- Yandex seems to filter images published by Russian-language, independent media. On Yandex the number of images from independent media is significantly lower than the ones that have been published by state-controlled. The finding is buttressed by the fact that the images from Russian-language, independent media do circulate on Google Images.
- Google and Yandex seem to act as two separate ecologies when it comes to image circulation of the Russian-Ukrainian war/special operation.
The aim of this project is to understand how images extracted from Russian-language, state-controlled and Russian-language, independent media compare as well as circulate on the search engines Yandex.ru and Google.com, using each engine's reverse image search. The aim to provide insights into the type of imagery deployed in the selected media sources as well as their circulation ecologies.
2. Research Questions
The research aims to answer the following questions:
- To what extent do state-controlled, Russian-language media and independent, Russian-language media have separate kinds of images that depict the war/special operation in Ukraine?
- Which images circulate on Yandex and do not circulate on Google, and vice versa? (presence and absence)
- Do state-controlled images have a particular network of sources where they are published distinctive to that of independent media?
- Are Google and/or Yandex suppressing particular images (or their sources) of the war (or special military operation)? To what extent?
3. Methodology and initial datasets
The methodology carried out to conduct the research is mostly quantitative, with the addition of Open Source Intelligence Techniques (OSINT). Our first step is to select three Russian-language state-controlled and four independent media sources. In order to choose the images under analysus, we download daily the top images (by engagement score) from their VK and Instagram accounts. Subsequently, each image has been loaded in reverse image search: Google.com from the Netherlands and Yandex.ru from Russia - with a VPN located in Moscow (CyberGhost
VPN has been utilized). To make sure that our own machines could not influence the outcome of the reverse image search we used the incognito mode present in Google Browser. (For further studies we suggest using a clean virtual machine that will add more layer of protection from tracking cookies.) Once each image was loaded, the presence and absence of images per engine was determined.
A spreadsheet with the following categories “Media name”, “Image name”, “Presence on Google”, “Google Link Number”, “Links from Google”, “Presence on Yandex”, “Yandex Link Number”, “Links from Yandex” was created. Afterwards, the outputs have been presented through a series of graphs that show respectively Google and Yandex Link Number per Media Outlet and the aggregated data of State Controlled vs Independent media. The outputs have been also represented through a Bi-partite network of sources per image set.
We also performed a network analysis of the sources, displaying a bi-partite graph showing the media ecologies of state-controlled and independent media according to their circulation on Google and Yandex.
The research has led to three main results. The first refers to the image semantics of Russian-language state-controlled and independent media, which seem, in our sample, to offer a "muffled" and less dramatic images of the war/special military operation on their social pages than their western counterparts (which we however did not study).
Fig. 1 visually represents the presence/absence of images on Google.com and Yandex.ru. It appears that State Controlled media seems to present the “special military operation” showing the power of Russian Federation through a representation of armaments, military vehicles and soldiers while Independent media seems more willing to represent the destruction of buildings and cities and the desperation of civilians, though to an extent that appears tamer than in western sources.
Our second finding involves the filtering of images, which seems to be performed by Yandex.ru around the images retrieved from the independent media. In fact, the number of images returned from those outlets is significantly lower on Yandex.ru than it is on Google.com.
Fig. 2 presents the temporal evolution of the presence/absence of the images retrieved by each media outlet on Google.com and Yandex.com in the following timeframe 16-22 March 2022. Green cells show the presence of each image, red cells the absence, while yellow cells with the wording ‘no relevant image found for the day’ show that no images could be found on IG with the predefined criteria determined for the analysis. As is shown, state- controlled and independent media provide different images, and seems to represent two different ecologies not only in terms of the war/special military operation but also in terms of image circulation on Google.com and Yandex.ru.
Our third and last finding revolves around the ecologies of the selected images, their circulation sphere, determined by the number of common domains. Google and Yandex seem to act as two separate ecologies when it comes to image circulation of the Russian-Ukrainian war/special operation. In order to demonstrate the separate source ecologies, we extracted the domains from the links of the images retrieved from the reverse image search, and compared how much they share common ground online.