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In Ukraine, Google’s core update heightens fears of Russian disinformation

 

 

 

By Muskan Bansal

 

In war-torn Ukraine, Google’s latest update to its core algorithm may have inadvertently created a void of credible reporting ripe for Russian disinformation to swoop in and fill, news leaders and experts fear.

The March update, which negatively impacted news sites globally, forced Ukrainian media to cut costs, reassign duties among staff, and adjust editorial priorities. Notably, newsrooms also reduced their coverage of Russia’s ongoing invasion to suit algorithmic changes.

“We don’t think that Google woke up one morning and decided to punish Ukrainian news sites,” said, co-founder of Media Growth Partners, a media consultancy and strategy firm, David Clinch.

. “Our concern, particularly in Ukraine during a war, during a battle of misinformation, is that not much, if anything, was done to forewarn or help or compensate for the likely impact of this initial change.”

I spoke with newsroom leaders in Ukraine to learn more about how Google’s March update to its core algorithm affected their work, what they’ve done to recover, and their concerns about the information ecosystem left behind.

Google Discover
After the update, Socportal, a Ukrainian news outlet reporting on critical public service issues and human rights, lost almost 70% of its daily site traffic. Its ad revenue diminished by nearly 80%.

Ukraine’s Focus Media experienced a 60% drop in traffic at the time, and readership of the larger Ukrainska Pravda also took a hit.

“It’s my 11th year in the industry and it’s the first time such a drastic situation has happened,” said , Socportal’s editor-in-chief, Maria Grynevych.

For Ukrainian media, changes to Google’s Discover, which as part of Google Search suggests content for users based on their online activity, have largely driven the traffic declines.

Discover, for instance, refers 60-70% of the total traffic Socportal and Focus Media receive, and upward of 30% for Ukrainska Pravda, according to the publication’s editors. For Socportal, this traffic fell to zero after the update, and Focus Media and Ukrainska Pravda experienced declines of 50% and 30%, respectively.

“[In Ukraine] there are a lot of publishers who think that they have a lot of direct traffic, but actually that’s traffic from Google Discover,” said Executive Editor Andrey Boborykin, Ukrainska Pravda.

And despite Google’s stated intention to cut back on low-quality content, some websites recommended in the Discover feed since the update appear highly unreliable, noted Andrey Sukhrakov, Focus Media’s deputy editor-in-chief.

“In Discover, I see just Ukrainian sites, but some are no-name sites. It seems they were created yesterday not years ago, but I see them right now,” he said.

How newsrooms have responded
When there are significant drops in readership, newsrooms, especially smaller ones, can’t afford just to wait for the situation to improve.

Socportal, for one, started buying referral traffic in an attempt to reach their pre-update numbers. Three months later, they’ve seen some positive changes. “When we started receiving referral traffic, Google traffic also rose. And now it’s kind of dynamic,” Grynevych said.

However, the progress has come at a cost. “[Grynevych] and others like her had to spend quite a bit more time, effort and money that they don’t have to rebuild their traffic, their audience and their strategy,” said Clinch.

Socportal has also tasked its staff reporters with taking on additional reporting – work the newsroom typically turned to freelance writers for. “We have a grant on reporting the social issues of war. We used to hire freelancers for this work,” said Grynevych.

“But now we focus just on the internal team and pay people for doing news from our grant which is totally supported by our donors.”

Focus Media has laid off three staff members since the March updates because of the inability to pay them, said Sukhrakov. They have also shifted coverage away from the Russian invasion.

“We have adjusted to writing more light content, because we see that Google takes more traffic to light content, not about the war. If you write about the war now, Google understands that they can’t monetize it,” said Sukhrakov. This has meant more coverage of lifestyle and fitness topics, he explained.

War fatigue among readers may be compounding the issue. “People are now trying to find some really fun stories, something which is not connected to hard times,” said Grynevych.

Boborykin shared the concern: “It’s quite organic that people are getting tired of consuming so much war-related news content.”

Hard news, about the war and related topics, may be difficult – but it’s essential, urged Clinch. So is the public service information Socportal publishes during wartime, which Ukrainians rely on. “If you’re in Ukraine and your advice to websites is ‘Don’t do so much hard news’ — that’s bullshit. That’s just a horrible way for Google to be thinking about this,” he said.

Ukrainska Pravda, with more resources at their disposal, previously acquired a tech blog and a sports publication in efforts to keep pace with Google’s changing algorithms.

“We launched two additional brands that are not hard news, not political,” explained Boborykin. “Purchasing these two new media brands is part of a diversification strategy because not only do we want to generate traffic, we also sell direct ads, native ads and programmatic ads on these websites.”

Ukrainska Pravda also runs a for-profit events business through which they sell event tickets and sponsorships. “It’s very counterintuitive that people want events in a city, which is attacked by drones and missiles from time to time. But this year we have [had] almost an event per month and all of them are making a profit,” said Boborykin.

Fears of Russian disinformation
The editors and media analysts interviewed expressed their fears about Russian disinformation filling the void left behind by the declines in readership.

“At the very least, traffic went down for authoritative websites and there is no indication that misinformation did anything other than continue at the same rate,” said Clinch.

The false content, after all, doesn’t rely on Google Search nearly as much to reach eyeballs. “Russian disinformation works via social media or influencers or other amplification campaigns, and does not get impacted in the same way as websites that were impacted by this Google Search update,” explained Clinch.

“Any dip to authoritative news sources exposes the possibility that misinformation will get more attention, because it does not come through the same methods.”

The reality today is that Google and its fellow tech giants play an outsized role in what information people consume. This power demands more accountability, argued Clinch: “Google needs to think very responsibly about how their global approach to cleaning up search and fixing their systems can impact places like Ukraine and other war zones where the unintended consequences can be so much more serious than they can be in another area.”

Google seems to be headed in the other direction, however, having already stepped back from the news, and threatening to retreat even further.

When it comes to the active war zone in Ukraine, the stakes are even higher. Especially with alarming levels of disinformation at play.

“We are concerned about the competitive disadvantage that this situation puts verified journalism in, relative to the Russian disinformation processes,” echoed, fellow co-founder of Media Growth Partners, Eli Flournoy.

“The timing [of the update] would never be good, but it was particularly bad now.”

 

 

Bansal is  a former intern with ICFJ’s Disarming Disinformation program and a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She writes about the media, audience engagement and mis-and disinformation topics.

 

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