Researchers show how activists use online reviews within Russia to protest the Ukraine invasion


By Chris Stokel-Walker

February 23, 2023

As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine arrives, a new paper published on the arXiv preprint server has quantified the scale by which activists have utilized every possible avenue to raise awareness within Russia of the actions of their president, including posting pleas to Russian citizens’ humanity on social media platforms. 

That ongoing public awareness campaign, co-opted Google Maps location reviews and Tripadvisor comments because Russia quickly instigated bans on traditional western news outlets, and strictly limited access to platforms the country felt unable to control adequately to ensure its pro-war message got through.

“We found it funny how people were leveraging these sites like Airbnb and TripAdvisor, and so on,” says Juan Tapiador of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in Spain, and one of the paper’s authors. “So we started collecting data. And it took a while for the platform to ban them.”

The academics monitored reviews of Russian businesses and tourist spots on Google Maps and Tripadvisor between February and September 2022. The dataset contains 7,330 posts made in 1,319 different threads by 1,229 different users on Tripadvisor, and 2,200,368 Google Maps reviews obtained from 122,826 locations in Russia.

“We found a few interesting things,” says Tapiador. “One is how difficult it is to block absolutely all communication channels.” Tapiador was amazed at people’s creativity in finding covert channels of communication to sow opposition to the war among Russian internet users. But the researchers found it wasn’t just anti-war messaging being pumped out illicitly; often the communications were more practical in nature. “Many of [the messages] were humanitarian help or communication in terms of finding roads, like: ‘Hey, how can I get to the train station in the next village?’” says Tapiador.

That was designed to aid Russians seeking to flee their country as the inevitability of war—and crippling sanctions—began to rise. Hundreds of thousands of Russians are believed to have fled the country in order to avoid mandatory military conscription, or the effects of global sanctions designed to dissuade Russia from continuing its conflict.

The type of message evolved over time, says the study’s lead author José Miguel Moreno. “At the beginning it was reviews of Moscow restaurants saying, ‘Yes, the food at this restaurant was really nice, the service was okay, unfortunately your president is killing Ukrainians,’” he says. The researchers’ analysis finds that 108 Russian towns, out of 8,660 found on Google Maps, had at least one review that signaled opposition about the war to Russian people, but half of the reviews were concentrated within two cities: Moscow, which accounted for 37% of the anti-war review bombs, and St. Petersburg, which had 15%.

Early on in the conflict there was a template that activists followed to fight the information war, Moreno says. But that strategy grew more nuanced as platforms became aware their sites were being co-opted to raise awareness within Russia. Rather than focusing their reviews solely on the two biggest and best-known cities in the country, activists targeted areas most likely to encounter troops as they made their incursion into Ukraine’s territory. Belgorod, a border city 40 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, saw war reviews make up 0.6% of the total—10 times the proportion in St. Petersburg, where 0.06% mentioned the war.

The platforms that were used to spread the word quickly understood what was going on and took action: While most honest new reviews of Russian landmarks posted in the time the researchers studied the platform remained on Google Maps when they stopped analyzing the content, the reviews mentioning the war tended to last less than 50 days, on average. Google removed the content because it was off-topic, rather than because of any stance favoring either side of the war. But for some messages that were taken down from platforms, others remained—and still do.

“There is definitely evidence of moderation,” says Tapiador. “But sometimes it looks erratic. I don’t think anyone at Tripadvisor or Airbnb ever expected their platform to be used for posting war messages.”

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