Whose stories of climate change? Mediating climate change in Yandex.News (Zen News) and Russian-language Google News before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Flowision’s postdoctoral researcher Mika Perkiömäki set out to find out whether the two news aggregator systems that dominate the industry in the Russian-language internet recommend news on climate change, energy business and environmental issues in different ways. What kind of stories do they bring to their top lists? What are the main sources they refer to? And finally, has there been a change after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and if, what kind of? This is a glimpse to the results from the points of view of climate change and choice of media.
The Russian news aggregator industry is dominated by Zen News [Novosti (Dzen)], formerly known as Yandex.News [Yandex.Novosti]. It is a news aggregator system that was developed and opened by the Russian technology company Yandex in 2000, and sold to another Russian technology company, VK, in September 2022. It provides an algorithm-driven selection of news to online users and thus works as an important intermediary of news to citizens. What makes it especially powerful in the Russian market is that its top 5 selections are presented right below the search engine on the main page of Yandex Search, which holds almost a 60% share of the internet search engine market in Russia – making it far more popular than Google Search.
Since VK acquired Yandex.News and renamed it Zen News in the autumn of 2022, the address yandex.ru, one of the most visited pages in the Russian internet, has redirected to dzen.ru (owned by VK) that includes the news aggregation service, while the address ya.ru (owned by Yandex) has significantly less traffic and includes no news suggestions.
Google’s news aggregator service, Google News is also available in the Russian. Because it is not visible on the same page as the Google search engine, it receives significantly less visibility among users of Russian-language internet than Zen News does. Access from Russia to Google News has been banned by the Russian authorities since 23 March 2022. Until October 2022, Russian-language Google News offered a top 6 list of current news in its front page. Since then, it has offered a list of top 4.
To gather material needed for this research, I coded a robot that crawled the internet archives of the two services one year before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and one year after. The total number of collected news items was 27,400. I then divided the news items retrieved in four groups (see Image 1): Yandex.News / Zen News one year before Russia’s full-scale invasion (7,200 items), and one year after it (5,200); and Google News one year before the invasion (3,000), and one year after it (12,000). Below, I will discuss some of the results of my look into how climate change was handled in the research material.
I found out that climate issues made their way very rarely in the top lists of either Yandex.News / Zen News or Google News during the two-year period of research (see Image 2). Common for both news aggregators is that while they present some climate stories during the year before the invasion (22 items in Yandex.News, and 7 in Google News), they almost totally disappear during the year after the invasion (3 items in Yandex.News / Zen News, and 1 in Google News).
However, when the contents of these climate stories are compared, there is a significant difference between the two news aggregators. In Google News, almost all the news before the invasion involved confrontation in climate issues between Russia and the West, but this theme is absent in Google News after the invasion. In Yandex.News / Zen News, only 3 out of 17 news items before the invasion handled the climate topic from the point of view of confrontation between Russia and the West, but after the invasion all the 3 climate stories in it take this position.
To exemplify the difference, let us take an example from 13 December 2021, when the UN Security Council voted for a resolution integrating climate-related security risk into conflict-prevention strategies. This was an initiative of Niger and Ireland, and Russia prevented the resolution by its veto in the Security Council.
Four pieces of news of this incident with slightly different emphases appeared in Google News’s top 6 on 14 December 2021, two of them by the commercial radio station Ekho Moskvy, and one each by the newspapers Moskovskij Komsomolets and Izvestia. The four stories complement one another:
Moskovskij Komsomolets is first presented as stating the incident and citing Russia’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya saying that it is a stupid idea to combine climate change and international security.
Later that day, Ekho Moskvy’s small piece of news is brought up. It also refers to Nebenzya’s comments, but it complements them with a reference to the European TV channel Euronews that briefly explains the rationale behind the proposed resolution.
Later, Ekho Moskvy brings up the US ambassador’s to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s, accusation that Russia has “betrayed the world” by its veto.
The final piece of news is a long story in Izvestia that starts with Thomas-Greenfield’s accusation, and then continues for an explanation of why the accusation is not true, citing the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The same incident was brought up in Yandex.News as well, but only once, by the state news agency TASS. This one brings up the point of view that Niger and Ireland chose to bring the resolution under a voting in the Security Council, even though it was well known that Russia opposes it. It also cited Nebenzya’s colourful wording of why the resolution was stupid and not to be supported.
Thus, in the story that Yandex brought up, the news is not that that Russia vetoed the resolution, as in the news items that Google brought up, but the reasons behind Russia’s veto.
These examples are illustrative of one of the differences I have found when comparing the climate stories that Yandex.News / Zen News and Russian-language Google News bring to the fore: those promoted by Yandex.News / Zen News tend to follow the position of the Russian government, while those that Google News prefers, bring up different perspectives – including the one by Russian government, but not only that.
Differences in the choice of news media
To a large extent, the difference in the framings of climate stories between Yandex.News / Zen News and Google News comes from the choice of media that they refer to (see Image 3). First, there is a remarkable difference in the number of news media they use. According to my investigation, Google News used 56 different news sources during the one-year period before Russia’s invasion, and as many as 154 during the year after that. At the same time, Yandex.News / Zen News used only 23 news media before the invasion, and no more than 18 after it.
The differences between the two news aggregators are even more pronounced in the list of most often cited news sources after the start of the invasion. During the year before the invasion, the differences are minimal (see the two top pie charts in Image 4): if we look at the top 6 most often cited sources, there are four media that appear in both Yandex.News sand Google News: RIA Novosti, Lenta.ru, RBK, and RT. Also Gazeta.ru, which is #4 on Google, and TASS, which is #2 in Yandex, appear in the top 8 on both services. The only media specific to only one of the services in the top 6 are Moskovskij Komsomolets (#6 on Google, totally absent on Yandex) and Kommersant (#4 on Yandex, #17 on Google). Nothing dramatic here.
But it is a completely different story after the start of the invasion (see two bottom pie charts in Image 4). Zen News continues with the same choice of news sources, preferring now especially two of them: RIA Novosti and Lenta.ru. The first is a state-owned news agency, and the latter a popular commercial online newspaper owned by Rambler Media Group, a subsidiary of Sberbank, which is a majority state-owned banking and financial services company.
Google News, however, completely changes the selection of media after the invasion. On 28 February 2022 it announced that it was dropping Russian state-funded publishers from its news service. This indeed was visible in the results as all the top 6 sources during the one-year period before the invasion disappear from Google News. The last references to Lenta.ru, RIA Novosti, RBK, Gazeta.Ru, RT and TASS appear between late February and late March 2022, and Moskovskij Komsomolets also disappears in June. The media that replace them in the top 6 are quite different: URA.RU (15%), UNIAN (11%), Kommersant (11%), Interfax (8.8%), Fontanka.Ru (6.7%), and Ukrainska Pravda (6.6%). RBK Ukraine replaces RBK Russia.
URA.RU is a local online news agency from the Ural and Perm regions that Yandex.News / Zen News does not use at all. Google News also almost totally ignored it before the war (1.2%). Furthermore, the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN is the second-most often cited source after the start of the invasion by an 11% share of references, even though it does not appear at all before the invasion. The first time it is used is on 20 March 2022, less than a month after the invasion. Kommersant is a business newspaper that is the only media common to both Google News and Zen News after the invasion; it ranks #3 on Google and #8 in Zen/Yandex. Interfax is a commercial news agency that Zen News also occasionally uses even after the invasion, but with only a 0.1% share. Fontanka.Ru is a regional online news media from St. Petersburg, and Ukrainska Pravda a Ukrainian online newspaper that publishes news mainly in the Ukrainian, but also translations of them in Russian and English.
After the start of the invasion, Yandex.News / Zen News prefers state-owned media even more than before the invasion, while Google News moves away from Russian state-owned sources and starts using mostly Ukrainian or regional Russian sources. Ukrainian news agencies and newspapers are probably used to mediate news that are devoid of Russian propaganda. Regional Russian media may be preferred by Google, because they are not as tightly controlled by the state as federal media, but they provide news that are more relevant for some Russian users than the various Ukrainian media. The results of this study cannot determine, whether the turn to Russian regional and Ukrainian media is mostly due to changes in the algorithm or the list of media used.
The radical difference in the choice of media between Zen News and Google News after the start of the invasion explains the differences in the content of the news items on climate change that I observed during the period of research. Kommersant is an interesting bridge between the two news aggregators, because it is the only media that both Google and Zen regularly refer to after the start of Russia’s invasion.