Russian tech giant Yandex has a handshake deal with government authorities to limit what news outlets the site will pull onto its homepage, according to a departed executive. Lev Gershenzon, Yandex’s former head of News, attracted significant notice — and some scorn — when he wrote a Facebook post tagging former colleagues, telling them to take down the feature or quit.
Gershenzon is now based in Berlin, where he runs a company that helps ecommerce platforms improve customers’ search experience. He showed Protocol how the top five stories on Yandex’s homepage may surface news about financial penalties that other countries are imposing on Russia, but is, in his description, saying little about the fighting and casualties and pulling largely from the dozen or so outlets that are friendliest to the Kremlin.
Yandex didn’t respond to questions about Gershenzon’s allegations.
Gershenzon — known as Lyova to friends and former colleagues — discussed how the deal goes beyond the government’s ability to censor webpages, how the headlines downplay the invasion and what he thinks his old company can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk about why you put this out there and why you felt it was important to speak up.
The simple answer is that, when such horrible things happen, everyone thinks of what they, particularly, can do. Here in Berlin, after the huge march that took place on Sunday, a lot of people are joining groups. They're offering their flats, their rooms. They're volunteering, as my older kids [are] yesterday and today, on the main railway station, where they meet the refugees from Ukraine. So I was thinking: How can I contribute to this? Of course, I don't have any superpowers. I can’t just stop the war. But I was the head of Yandex.News for almost five years.
I realized: This is maybe the main pillar of the war. Tens of millions of Russian citizens don't know that the war is taking place. They don't know any details about the bombings, the missiles, that a lot of civilians have been killed. That lots of soldiers — they are quite young boys — they have been killed there. And the reason? The media field is censored, drastically, and Yandex.ru is, if I'm not mistaken, the most popular media portal with the largest audience in Russia.
How does Russian policy enforce measures so that Yandex doesn't put this stuff up?
I have not worked for Yandex for almost 10 years, but the main principles [of how the site works], I believe they remain the same. Even at the time that I was leading the service, there was — I didn't like it then, but I must admit — an unofficial agreement with the guys from the present administration that the top news stories have some additional filters, the stories that are being displayed on the main page. The headlines can be acquired only from a quite short list of news sources, so not just [from all] the news sources that have media licenses. According to my sources, right now this list contains just maybe 15 or 12.
It's not news aggregation. It's just a tool for spreading propaganda, and if you have a look at these headlines, you won't find the word “war.” Only, like, “special operation.” And they really, really look quite hard to avoid [using] this word in the headlines.
What were your practical suggestions to your old colleagues?
The best [idea] — and maybe the most dangerous one, I admit — was to somehow change this filter or eliminate it totally. What I was trying to express is that the responsibility is really huge. For me, as a product guy, if the end result is awful, then it's not that interesting how we came here. The main question is how we fix it.
Maybe another option was to alter this algorithm and then to lie, and to say that it was like a hacker attack, or it was a mistake. It was a bug. I realize that [deception] couldn't last long. Maybe the truth would be displayed on Yandex for half a day. It would be great. It means, like, 15 million people would see it. If it would last for an hour, it would still mean that, I don't know, 1 million, 2 million people will see something different — some facts about these war crimes and so on — and they could spread the word. They could start asking questions.
And the last option was to just break this service, say that it doesn't work. We can display it so [there’s] no news on the main page. In my point of view, it will also be much better than displaying what's displayed right now. And, if you're not capable of doing any of this, you should resign and you should get out of the company. Because otherwise, as I see it, you're still responsible for helping the real evil guys commit these awful crimes.
What would happen to Yandex if [the team] did make these alterations, claimed it was a bug and had to take it down?
Well, I don't know. I can only guess, but [what I suggested] doesn’t violate any current laws. There is no law that Novaya Gazeta [Editor’s note: which is critical of the government but, for now, is officially allowed to operate] couldn’t be taken as a headline. It's just this agreement with this filter.
Everything could happen, but, from my experience, this self-censorship is much stronger than the real censorship. This fear of something that might happen is — often, maybe not always — much bigger than the real consequences.
What do you think average Russians think when they read these top five headlines on Yandex?
What I was trying to stress is that every hour that [this] fake news [is] displayed there, they support the war. I found the number: 30 million users daily visited this main page. Most of them, they are not interested in the news. They are not interested in politics. They just come to Yandex to solve a number of different tasks in their real life: to see the traffic jams, find a map, to buy something, to order food delivery. They just see this news block, and the question they're trying to answer, maybe unconsciously, is a simple one: Is something really happening, or is everything OK? And the [headlines Yandex uses] say everything is pretty much OK! “There is some kind of special operation happening somewhere. It's OK. Yeah, we are fighting some bandits, some narcos, some Nazis.”
They just scan these headlines, and they see nothing extraordinary, no emergency. And they go on living with this fake, toxic knowledge that no war is happening. No civilians are harmed, only [Ukraine’s] military infrastructure is being targeted.
What’s been the response to your post?
There were thousands of likes, more than thousands of shares, only on Facebook. My kids told me that there were a lot of publications on Instagram. I saw this tweet with the translation of my post, also with thousands of reshares, reposts and likes.
I had one short talk with my former colleague, who is quite a high-level executive at Yandex, but not from the list of people that I addressed personally [in the Facebook post]. He told me, “Lyova, I fully agree with your position.”
And I said, “It wasn’t about my position. It was a call to action! I need you to take some action. Every day, every hour, counts.”
He said: “You know, I’m so ashamed. I fully support you, and I tried to persuade my colleagues with a reference to your opinion. I didn’t manage to achieve anything.”
And I said: “Well, keep trying. It’s not too late.”
With my [second] post [to follow up], I said that there were a lot of missile attacks in Kharkiv again, some 20 more casualties among civilians. And all these casualties have something to do with this fucking so-called news blog. I was hoping some brave guys, maybe that were already fed up with all this shit, would approach me and say, “I’m ready to resign ... And I can do something useful before that happens, and I’m not afraid. Maybe I do something and then I flee. I take a plane.” Something like that.
No. No one.
So what do you think is next?
I'm just trying to help [Yandex] to come fast to the last stage where they take action. I don't work. I don't run my company anymore, just in some short pauses, because, well, I think that [speaking out] is the one thing that I can do right now.