Ukrainians’ Google Searches Reveal a Year of Fear—and Hope

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Researchers jumped on the moment. In March 2022, Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute began compiling a digital archive that includes news, Twitter, and Telegram posts about the war. A consortium of human rights and humanitarian groups says it is gathering audio and video from Ukraine in part to provide evidence of war crimes but also to simply “tell the world what it’s like to live through this war.” A women-led group calling itself Dattaliona combination of data and battalion, says it is capturing photos and videos so that atrocities carried out by the enemy are remembered.

Beyond those purposes, each of the digital databases also could be mined to track what Ukrainians caught in the conflict cared about through the war. Taras Nazaruk, head of digital history projects at the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, Ukraine, has been leading a project downloading conversations from Telegram, the chat app popular among Eastern Europeans. It captures posts from government officials and large groups, which provide a more ground-level view of the war’s effect on everyday life in Ukraine.

Ukrainians turned to Telegram seeking help locating missing relatives, identifying soldiers, tracking Russian troop movements and war crimesand making calls to action for supplies, weapons, and even hacking skillsaccording to the history center’s project. People shared petrol and housing availability on Telegram. They posted reports about life under Russian occupation and how to escape.

Misinformation flowed widely, including a case in which a Russian propagandist falsely claimed that trains were not operating, hoping to keep Ukrainians in place ahead of a Russian attack, according to an early analysis by the center. Other Russian-run channels sought to share propaganda about how Russia would improve life for Ukrainians.

The project is for now primarily focused on collecting and preserving data. No one has analyzed what the conversations are like today in comparison to a year ago, but several reports are expected to flow later this year from the Telegram archives. “Hopefully, it would be a valuable source on various aspects of wartime reality in Ukraine,” Nazaruk says.

Google’s Rogers says it was natural to look back on Ukrainians’ search history at the one-year mark of the war. He says it can provide an unvarnished look at the priorities of people caught in the conflict, because unlike with social media posts, people don’t generally curate their search queries to present a particular image.

Rogers says that what he has found in the Ukraine search trends resembles patterns from other crises his team has studied, whether the onset of Covid-19 or the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “We’re always looking for the common things that are popping up ,” he says. “I wouldn’t say there’s a science behind it.”

Those common themes include understanding, planning, and hope. People want to get a lay of the land, and they quickly want to take action. Google’s search trends data, which is publicly accessibledoes not reveal the most popular queries. Rather, it shows searches that the company calls “breakouts,” which saw a large spike in traffic over a sustained period. Rogers’ team monitors which of the breakouts are accelerating the fastest.

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