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Pressing query: Changes in Russian Google and Yandex search trends after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine

As opinion polls within Russia lost their effectiveness and failed to accurately represent factual information, analyzing search statistics on Yandex and Google emerged as a crucial method for assessing public sentiments. These statistics indicate that over the span of a year and a half, the efforts of the Kremlin and propagandists have not yet succeeded in convincing Russians to refer to the war in Ukraine as a “special operation.” However, they have succeeded in making them anticipate a nuclear detonation, stock up on ammunition, buckwheat, and iodine, take interest in the composition of the Molotov cocktail, find bomb shelters, and heed astrological predictions. With the onset of the conflict, Russians have also suddenly begun to query the conclusion of Putin's presidential term and explore ways to alleviate their anxieties.

Content
  • TVs, fridges, and ammo

  • “What happened?”

  • Molotov cocktails for elections

  • Rise in anxiety

  • How we calculated

TVs, fridges, and ammo

The onset of the war in 2022 brought about a significant shift in Russian consumption patterns, as indicated by search queries. This trend was also noted by marketing experts. Roughly a month after the outbreak of hostilities, Romir specialists highlighted that approximately two-thirds of the country's population viewed the unfolding events as a crisis. Russians foresaw a deterioration in the situation, leading them to stock up on essentials such as oil, sugar, canned goods, pasta, and grains. The heightened demand for oil persisted until the year's end according to search data, while interest in other products returned to normal levels by May. These findings align with Rosstat's statistics. Similar spikes in queries were observed in March 2020 during the initial COVID-19 lockdown.

However, food items were not the sole focus of Russians' purchasing spree in March 2022. Hygiene products like shampoos and sanitary pads witnessed increased demand, resulting in notable price hikes, as did medicines. Nonetheless, the most substantial surge in search queries concerned televisions. This phenomenon is not surprising, according to Valeria Andreeva, Head of Corporate Communications at M.Video–Eldorado. She explains that during periods of crisis, there is indeed a heightened demand for higher-priced items like cars, electronics, clothing, furniture, and construction materials. Rather than excessive consumption, this reflects a concentration of demand in the moment, representing postponed demand or future precaution, as she told The Insider.

During this same timeframe, there was a surge in interest for ammunition and firearms. However, the intensity of search activity for these items gradually waned. Notably, an increase in search queries for “buy ammunition” was again observed in March 2023.

“What happened?”

At the onset of the war, the peak of interest was focused on queries like “what is happening.” Nevertheless, by the summer of 2022, curiosity regarding events within the “special operation” zone dwindled considerably—only the announcement of mobilization briefly rekindled this curiosity for a couple of months. This could suggest two scenarios: either Russians hold minimal interest in developments in Ukraine and their implications for Russia, or they are sufficiently informed from alternative trusted sources, thus sparing them from repetitious queries. However, from late September 2022 onward, curiosity surged anew around the question “what is happening on the front.” This second wave of interest began in April and continues up to the present time.

Interestingly, the number of people who refer to the ongoing events as a war, even when they are alone with their web browser, is significantly larger than those who use the state-imposed new terminology, such as “SMО” or “special operation.”

The number of people who refer to the ongoing events as a war, even when they are alone with their web browser, is much larger than those who use the terms “SMО” or “special operation”

After the announcement of mobilization in September, interest in the war increased again, never dropping below the “baseline” values of 2021.

Interestingly, the mobilization phenomenon captured the attention of Russians much more intensely than the war itself. Throughout September and October, information about mobilization was searched for nearly 80 million times, surpassing the search frequency for war-related information, which reached 60 million. This highlights that it was the mobilization announcement that triggered Russians' increased interest in the war, especially in comparison to the preceding summer months.

The most popular sources of information about the war include Vladimir Solovyov's broadcasts, Yuri Podolyaka's Telegram channels, and “war correspondents.”

Molotov cocktails for elections

The declaration of mobilization coincided with a surge in interest in protest-related topics, even surpassing the interest observed at the start of the war in February. However, even more frequently than protest-related activities, people searched on Yandex for information about Molotov cocktails—approximately as often as any information related to anti-war sentiments.

It cannot be said that Russians usually don't search for such terms on the internet, but the difference is noticeable. While users typically look for Molotov cocktails in the context of computer games, in March and September of 2022, as well as in April 2023, users were searching for terms like “composition,” “recipe,” and “how to make” the incendiary mixture.

Interest in all protest-related matters declined proportionally to the increase in the number of criminal cases opened for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.” In March and April 2023, the number of search queries began to rise again—not solely because Russians were searching for protests in France, Georgia, and Israel. This can be inferred from the fact that simultaneously, the terms “anti-war” and once again “Molotov cocktail” were increasingly searched for. However, as summer approached, interest in protest activities dwindled among Russians.

Interest in all things protest-related dwindled proportionally to the increase in the number of criminal cases opened for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces”

Both mobilization and the commencement of the war sparked interest in the topic of elections. Typically, Russians ask Yandex “when are the elections?” in September—prior to the Unified Voting Day. However, in 2022, a similar peak in interest occurred in March and April, with nearly a million searches for election-related information. Russians were particularly curious about the presidential elections. Since January 2023, this query has remained consistently popular, with enduring interest.

An unexpected query also gained traction: “how long has Putin been in power?” This is typically of interest in the lead-up to elections. However, in 2022, it emerged in the context of the full-scale invasion and mobilization.

In October (after the announcement of mobilization), the search for election-related information doubled in frequency, unrelated to seasonality—this included information about the presidential elections in Ukraine.

Interestingly, questions about elections in both Russia and Ukraine mainly originated from residents of border regions and neighboring areas. This is demonstrated by the regional popularity coefficient calculated by Yandex.

Rise in anxiety

The number of queries related to stress, sadness, and depression has remained relatively unchanged over the past two years. Only the search term “anxiety” saw an increase in interest after the announcement of mobilization in September 2022, which wasn't tied to seasonality. By March 2023, this interest sharply escalated—doubling to 1.3 million queries per month. This is a significant figure; roughly the same number of queries are made for the most popular requests, like salad recipes or children's games.

Simultaneously, Russians' awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder is growing. Since September 2022, searches for this topic have become increasingly frequent.

The rise in anxiety is not surprising: from the very beginning of the war, Russians have been anticipating a nuclear conflict, seeking information about bomb shelters, and learning how iodine can mitigate radiation effects. All these queries experience heightened interest peaks precisely on the dates of the commencement of shelling in Ukraine and the declaration of mobilization.

How we calculated

For the study, we utilized data from the Yandex.Wordstat service, which provides statistics on the display of specific queries over the past month, as well as monthly statistics for the last 24 months and popularity breakdown by regions.

Approximately 64% of all internet users in Russia use Yandex, with almost all others using Google for search. Occasionally, we referred to the Google Trends service to evaluate certain archived queries. However, we used it sparingly as it doesn't provide query counts but only relative popularity. For the purpose of this study, we assume that users of Google search for roughly the same things as Yandex users and do not differ from them in terms of political and ideological views, age, or socioeconomic status.

The two most popular search engines in Russia, Yandex and Google, roughly generate similar sets of search prompts. These are typically the most frequently asked questions associated with a given word in a specific location at a given time (the lists are continuously updated) and are adjusted for user interests. Offensive or illegal prompts are removed from the lists. You can read more about how Google's prompts are generated here and Yandex's here.

To understand the questions Russians ask on Google and Yandex, we used a variation of the “snowball sampling” method. While in sociology this method refers to selecting new respondents among familiar previous respondents, we used it to select new search queries based on words from previous search queries.

To comprehend the types of questions that might interest Russians in general, we collected search prompts on Yandex and Google based on a set of basic words. This set included typical human questions such as “when?”, “where?”, “why?”, “how?”, and so on. We allowed the search engines to extend these phrases using their suggestions. To eliminate the “specific user interests” factor, we deployed a bot that accessed search engines from a Russian location but had no prior history of interests. This was aimed at preventing search engines from customizing suggestions specifically for us. For each search term, the bot added a space followed by a Cyrillic or Latin alphabet letter or a digit and recorded which continuation variants Yandex offered.

The collected queries, which amounted to nearly 14,000, were broken down into individual words to understand what topics Russians ask about more frequently and what concepts they inquire about. From these words, we selected those that could directly relate to the war, politics, and the economy, as well as proper nouns such as the surnames of politicians and businessmen. Additionally, we added words that were semantically related to the ones found in the queries. For instance, upon realizing that Russians were highly interested in nuclear warfare, iodine, and radiation protection, we included related terms like “bunker,” “bomb shelter,” and “radioactive” in the third seeding of words. When we spotted the query “mobilization protests,” we added words like “anarchists” and “Molotov cocktail” to the sample.

Having selected words in this manner, we once again prompted Yandex and Google to suggest queries based on them. This allowed us to gather around 40,000 more queries that Russians frequently asked in 2022-2023, which were popular enough to be included in search prompts. Using the Yandex.Wordstat service for questions that were most relevant to the research theme, we extracted monthly access statistics and identified spikes in interest.

Examples of Yandex and Google search prompts for the phrase “protest against”
Examples of Yandex and Google search prompts for the phrase “protest against”

In the end, we obtained queries that experienced a surge of interest this year and could have had a connection to the war, political and economic situations in Russia, and individual figures—everything relevant to the questions explored in this study.

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