Crossover found that Google autocomplete predictions displayed almost systematically the name of a Pro-Kremlin outlet when French speaking Belgians were looking up the word “Donbass” on Google Search. Other predictions for the same search term showed the names of known Pro-Kremlin individuals.
On 24 February, Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” in Ukraine. All eyes on Ukraine, Europe watched how Russia started to invade the country. New terms began to be pronounced by journalists, terms a lot of people have never heard of before: Khrakiv, Azov, denazify, Boutcha, Donbass…
What is the reflex when someone hears a word he doesn’t know anything about? To Google it. According to Google Trends data, Belgian users’ interest dramatically increased for the term “Donbass”, causing Google searches for this word to skyrocket.
When a user types a word in the Google search box, the search prediction feature will try to guess what the user has in mind by predicting the rest of the query, using an algorithm. When typing, a prediction box shows up, populated with Google’s guesses for possible search queries. This system is called Google Autocomplete Prediction.
Between February and August 2022, when Belgian users were querying information about Donbass, Google Autocomplete Prediction would complete their search with dubious terms.
Our research has proven that the search “Donbass”‘ was associated with “Insider”, “Anne Laure Bonnel”, “Insider Christelle” among other predictions. By showing “Insider” to its users, Google might have led them to Donbass Insider, a pro-Kremlin propaganda outlet accused of spreading disinformation on the war in Ukraine and particularly on the conflict in Donbas. Sometimes, its associated social media channels, like Youtube or Odysee, where they produce the same type of content appeared in the predictions.
Google also predicted “Anne Laure Bonnel”, which refers to a “French journalist who gained visibility after she presented a pro-Russian analysis of the Donbass conflict, including some misleading information.” according to ISD.
Lastly, the prediction “Christelle” leads to Christelle Néant, founder of Donbass Insider who can count on a network of followers to spread her content and Kremlin-friendly rhetoric.
Google was contacted and invited to provide an explanation following CrossOver’s findings but didn’t comment on the fact that the company might have exposed citizens to Pro-Kremlin outlets in the context of the war in Ukraine.
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