Googling in Russian Abroad: How Kremlin-Affiliated Websites Contribute to the Visibility of COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories in Search Results

Florian Toepfl, Anna Ryzhova, Daria Kravets, Arista Beseler


Research that audited search algorithms typically deployed queries in one language fielded from within only one country. In contrast, this study scrutinized 8,800 Google results retrieved in November 2020 from 5 countries (Russia, the United States, Germany, Ukraine, and Belarus) in response to queries on COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Russian and English. We found that the pandemic appeared similar to people who googled in Russian independent of their geolocation. The only exception was Ukraine, which had implemented rigorous media policies to limit the reach of websites affiliated with Russia within its national public sphere. Conspiracy narratives varied with input language. In response to Russian-language queries, 35.5% of the conspiratorial results suspected U.S. plotters to be behind the pandemic (English language: 5.8%). All source pages that blamed U.S. plotters showed connections with Russia’s elites. These findings raise important theoretical questions for today’s multilingual societies, where the practice of searching in nonlocal languages is increasing.


search engines, Google, Russia, conspiracy theory, disinformation, COVID-19, algorithms

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