Policy

'It's just a tool for spreading propaganda': How Yandex gaslights Russians

The former head of Yandex.News said the site has a deal to pick Kremlin-friendly news outlets for its homepage, but he believes it doesn’t have to be that way.

Yandex logo

Lev Gershenzon, former head of Yandex.News, describes how the headlines downplay the invasion and what he thinks his old company can do.

Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins