Russia’s biggest search engine secretly put blocks in its code to stop images of Vladimir Putin showing up in the results of potentially embarrassing searches, according to a report, with Nazi iconography also allegedly scrubbed out of the results of queries for the “Z” symbol signifying support for the war in Ukraine.
Last week, fragments of the source code for Yandex—sometimes likened to “Russia’s Google”—were leaked online. Experts have been poring over the code ever since to see what can be gleaned about how the site works, with some eyebrow-raising results.
According to independent Russian news site Meduza, Yandex automatically altered users’ search queries to stop images of President Vladimir Putin from showing up when the user searched for individual words including “bald” and “fucker.”
The site also had mechanisms in place to stop images of Putin appearing in the results for specific, unflattering phrases too. They reportedly include “bunker grandfather,” “master thief,” and “dick in a spacesuit.” The results for queries including “what do pedophiles look like,” “when he dies” and “strange creature waving” were also said to have been filtered to ensure pictures of Putin wouldn’t show up.
Meduza’s report claims that these filtering rules would apply regardless of which country the user searched from, but it’s unclear when the rules were implemented or if they are still active.
It appears that similar rules had also been baked into the Yandex code to keep the letter “Z” from appearing alongside results which the Kremlin would consider undesirable. Since Moscow’s forces first marched across the border into Ukraine last February, the letter “Z” has become a prominent symbol of support for Russia’s invasion and has consequently been banned from public display in several European countries.
And to stop the “Z” symbol appearing alongside other hate symbols—specifically those relating to Nazism—Yandex reportedly blocked out certain content from appearing in the results for “Z symbol.” This allegedly worked by Yandex secretly adding “minus words” to the search, meaning the engine would subtract content relating to “hitler,” “nazis,” “ss,” or “reich” from the results.
Meduza reports that swastikas still appear in the results for Yandex searches for the “Z” symbol or “special operation logo” but “it is not known whether this is due to the fact that the filter is already turned off or it simply does not work well.”
It appears sensitivity around the invasion of Ukraine even extended to the words that Yandex would permit for use in its CAPTCHA—the online tests designed to confirm a user is a human being, typically by typing in a randomly generated word or phrase presented to the user in distorted text.
According to Meduza, certain words were banned from ever being used in Yandex’s CAPTCHA. They include the words “death” and “google,” but the word “surrender” was allegedly added to the list after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian word for “lions” was also said to have been added after the outbreak of the war—Meduza says this is “in all likelihood” because the word is a homonym for Lviv, the city in western Ukraine.
The new claims aren’t the first allegations of censorship involving Yandex. Last June, the site’s CEO and co-founder Arkady Volozh resigned after being personally sanctioned by the EU for Yandex “deranking and removing content critical of the Kremlin, such as content related to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”