Thursday, September 28

Western-owned Russian firm helps sites pushing false news profit from ads | Russia

A Russian tech giant mostly owned by western investors is Helping websites pushing false claims about the war in Ukraine to make thousands of dollars every day through digital advertising.

Yandex is considered Russia’s equivalent to Google, running both a search engine and an extensive digital advertising business. Its deputy CEO, Tigran Khudaverdyan, resigned this month after the European Union sanctions imposed on him.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has discovered Yandex-delivered ads appearing alongside misinformation and propaganda produced by more than half a dozen Russian-language news sites. These attracted more than 420m visits in February, according to SimilarWeb, suggesting these sites could be making tens of millions of dollars annually from digital ads.

Warnings ran alongside false stories about US bioweapons labs in Ukraine, claims that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is displaying symptoms of drug use, and reports parroting Russian claims that the “special operation” is going entirely to plan. Others detail supposed provocations by Ukraine aimed at Russia’s allies, or refer to the Russian invasion as an “operation to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine”.

Any ad revenue would be channeled through a business owned by some of the world’s largest investment firms, most of which are based in the US.

“A big part of online disinformation and online propaganda is that it’s quite profitable financially,” said Jane Lytvynenko, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard who specializes in analyzing misinformation. “And so cutting off that revenue stream, I think, is very important.”

Some of the sites documented by the Bureau have direct links to the Russian state. The Bureau found Yandex serving ads on the website of the state news agency RIA, and two offshoots of the state-owned Sputnik.

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One of the largest sites, with more than 177m visits in February, was Lenta.Ru. Lenta is part of Rambler, a media group that was bought in 2020 by Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, which is state-owned and under US and UK sanctions. The Bureau confirmed that Lenta.Ru was using Yandex’s video advertising up until at least 10 March.

While Yandex is headquartered in Moscow, it is listed on the New York stock market Nasdaq under a company registered in the Netherlands. Analysis by the Bureau shows that the vast majority of its shares are owned by investors based in the west, in particular the US. Among them are some of the world’s largest investment firms, asset managers and banks.

As of 16 March, Yandex’s largest single shareholder was Capital Group, an asset management fund with trillions of dollars under management, which owns a 13% stake in the company. The second and fourth largest shareholders were also huge asset management firms: Invesco and Fidelity.

Capital Group said it had a longstanding policy not to comment on its holdings, but added: “Our hearts are with the Ukrainian people and all those harmed by this war.”

Fidelity said it had decided not to purchase Russian securities in light of recent events, and would consider eliminating its current Russian holdings. Invesco has also been approached for comment.

“Investors need to also think through how their money is being used, where that money is being invested, and how they can contribute to isolating Russia and Russian companies,” said Lytvynenko. “Especially as they spread propaganda worldwide.”

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Among the top 10 shareholders, only two are not big western investment firms: a family trust in the name of the Yandex founder Arkady Volozh, and a former executive at Yandex. More than half are based in the US. The company’s share structure means that Volozh’s trust controls, when combined with a small number of shares held by other directors and employees, more than 50% of the voting power, but only about 11% of the dividend-paying shares.

Yandex’s share price has almost halved since the invasion of Ukraine. Grubhub ended a partnership with the company to create food delivery robots, while Uber announced it was accelerating pre-existing plans to cut ties. The company itself has not had sanctions imposed by the UK, despite calls from some MPs.

Yandex’s stance is in contrast to many foreign web companies, which have taken action against attempts to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last week, for instance, Google announced it would bar any website that “exploits, dismisses, or condoms” the war from using its advertising tools to earn revenue. Hours later, the Russian internet censor Roskomnadzor blocked Google News, accusing it of sharing “unreliable, publicly significant information” about the “special military operation”.

Yandex and Lenta.Ru have been approached for comment.

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