17.10.23 Review

Search Queries: Russians are waiting for the return of the mobilised and are increasingly interested in the possibility of peace talks, according to Yandex statistics

Approximately 60% of search queries on Yandex containing variations of the term 'mobilised' are linked to the return home of Russians who were drafted into the war a year ago, according to Re:Russia's calculations. A sharp increase in such queries began in late July of this year and reached its peak at the end of September. Moreover, an analysis of search queries also demonstrates a surge of interest in 'negotiations with Ukraine' and 'peace talks'. An intriguing pattern emerges when analysing searches containing the phrase 'Putin will leave': there was an initial increase in the first months of the war, followed by another peak at the beginning of mobilisation, and a third, albeit weaker, surge was noted during the rebellion involving Yevgeny Prigozhin. Given that the reliability of even independent public opinion polls in Russia in the face of escalating repressive measures raises questions, examining Russian Internet search queries can be used as an important alternative tool for analysis of certain aspects of public opinion.

Under conditions of war and repressive pressure, the number of independent public opinion polls in Russia is small, and the reliability of their data is a subject of debate. In such circumstances, indirect indicators relying on 'big data' are becoming especially important. Journalists and researchers, in particular, are turning to the analysis of Internet search queries. What can they tell us about public attitudes?

In a recent investigation, The Insider found that, in February 2022, the question 'when will the war end' was asked almost 1.4 million times on the Yandex search engine (which, according to its own data, handles two-thirds of all Russian search queries). The next spike occurred in September-October 2022, during the retreat of the Russian army in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions and the announcement of mobilisation in Russia. The search dynamics also demonstrate a growing concern about 'drones'. The first surge in the number of searches on this topic was in March of this year (around 1 million queries per month), with the absolute peak in May, when the number of queries approached 2 million. After a decline in July-August, the number of queries began to increase rapidly once again. 40% of the queries about drones in August-September 2023 were from Moscow and the Moscow region, while another 20% came from St Petersburg, the Leningrad , Rostov, and Bryansk regions, Krasnodar Krai, and annexed Crimea. The publication also notes that, in recent months, the number of searches related to the term 'volunteer' has been on the rise. The most frequent searches for information about volunteers in September 2023 were in Tuva, Buryatia, Arkhangelsk region, and Transbaikalia. Thus, this topic is primarily popular in economically disadvantaged regions, where military contracts may seem particularly attractive.

Based on the same Yandex search data, the publication 'Verstka' notes a sharp increase in the number of searches related to the return of mobilised persons in September 2023. The query 'when will the mobilised return' was entered into the search bar 134,000 times, which is an increase of 51% on August. The topic of the rotation of the mobilised became one of the most pressing issues on the Russian domestic political agenda this autumn, precisely a year after Russians were first mobilised. According to Re:Russia's calculations, the total number of search queries containing the word 'mobilised' reached 1.402 million in September. About 60% of all queries were in some way or another related to demobilisation.

If we consider the four most popular searches on this topic ('mobilised returning home’, 'mobilised demobilisation', 'when will the mobilised return’, 'when will the mobilised return home'), which accounted for 758,000 search queries in September, and the four most popular queries related to volunteering ('SMO volunteers', 'volunteers 2023', 'volunteers in Ukraine’, 'volunteer contract' — there were 205,000 queries in September), the general picture of the dynamics of the two topics is as follows:

Internet searches on topics related to the return of mobilised persons and volunteering, Yandex, 2022-2023, number of search queries per month

As we can observe, after the spike in September-October 2022, when the fear of defeat and mobilisation shocked Russian society, the topic of 'volunteering' has stabilised at around 250,000 searches per month. The topic of the return of the mobilised began to show rapid growth as early as July before reaching its peak in September. However, a more detailed weekly breakdown reveals that in early October there was a slight decline in searches on this topic.

Internet searches on topics related to the return of mobilised persons, Yandex, 2023, number of search queries per week

In general, the analysis of Yandex search queries appears to be a quite significant tool for investigating certain aspects of the dynamics of public opinion. For example, the analysis of searches containing the phrase 'Putin will leave' provides an intriguing picture. As we can see, there were 40,000 such queries per month at the end of 2021, just before the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and this then increased slightly in February-April 2022. The next surge coincides precisely with the announcement of mobilisation at the end of September 2022, and a third, weaker one, is associated with the Prigozhin uprising.

Internet searches with the words 'Putin will leave', Yandex, 2021-2023, number of search queries per month

The queries also indicate that, by the spring of 2023, authorities had managed to normalise the abbreviation 'SMO' as a replacement for the concept of 'war in Ukraine.' While data from mass surveys suggest a decline in interest in this topic, the analysis of search queries points to a stabilisation of the attention paid to this issue over the past six months.

Internet searches with the words 'war in Ukraine' and 'SMO', Yandex, 2022-2023, number of queries per month

At the same time, Yandex data shows a sharp surge in searches for the phrases 'Ukraine negotiations' and 'peace talks' in recent months. If we look from the beginning of March to mid-June 2023, we can observe an average of about 23,000 queries per week for these phrases. However, from late June to mid-September, this average increased by about 1.5 times, up to 36,000 queries per week. In the past four weeks, the number of searches for this topic reached 432,000: 384,000 for the first phrase and 48,000 for the second. This is almost four times higher than the average monthly values for the same searches during the first half of the year. Sharp weekly peaks indicate the presence of information triggers, one of which was Putin's statement about 'readiness' for negotiations in mid-September. However, routine references to this topic occurred earlier as well, although they failed to generate as much acute interest as they did in September-October 2023.

Internet searches with words 'negotiations Ukraine' and 'peace talks', Yandex, 2022-2023, number of search queries per week