A recent study analyzing online search trends in Russia suggests that the invasion of Ukraine did not lead to a nationwide increase in happiness and life satisfaction among the Russian population, contrary to official data from Russian polling agencies. The research, conducted by the University of Cambridge, indicates that levels of wellbeing and public morale in Russia may be at their lowest point in a decade.
The study found that web searches related to anti-war and anti-Putin sentiment surged during the early stages of the invasion, particularly during moments of military mobilization. However, the frequency of such searches decreased when the Kremlin shifted its reliance to mercenaries and prison recruits. The study also suggests that Western economic sanctions had little effect on Russian households, as their financial situation appeared to stabilize rapidly in the spring of 2022.
The report highlights the unreliability of state-sanctioned polling in Russia, with suspicions of public fear and government manipulation influencing the data. Instead, the researchers used data collected through Google Trends and Yandex to assess public sentiment. They found a significant divergence between web search trends and official polling data, indicating a decline in public mood and an increase in searches related to “tacit dissent.”
The authors of the report plan to continue updating their dataset, asserting that online search trends provide a more accurate reflection of Russian public opinion than traditional survey institutes. They argue that online searches, which are considered private and often reflect internal thoughts and anxieties, offer insights into the public consciousness within repressive states.
“Online search data has been proven to be a powerful tool for inferring the beliefs and attitudes of national populations,” said Dr Roberto Foa, report co-author from the University of Cambridge. “Unlike social media data, online searches represent a much wider section of the population.”
“Web searches are felt to be private, and often reflect internal thoughts and anxieties that people would not wish to broadcast. Such data provides insight into the public consciousness within repressive states, where truth is hidden by a fog of fear and disinformation.”
“Polling from agencies within Russia shows the war boosted morale, but our research suggests that the national public mood is near its lowest level for a decade,” said Foa.
“Online search data shows the Russian people are not simply passive subjects. The legitimacy of the regime is being eroded by failure in war and the demand for personal sacrifice at the altar of Putin’s dictatorship.”
The study tracked rates of web searches for various keywords related to mental health symptoms and personal finance emergencies to measure wellbeing and household finances, respectively. The data showed a continual decline in overall wellbeing following the onset of the war in Ukraine. Although there was a slight increase in public sentiment at the beginning of the invasion, it quickly diminished with the passage of the War Censorship Act in March 2022.
Additionally, the study examined anti-war and anti-regime searches, indicating an inclination toward political dissent among Russians when online. Searches for Putin critics, such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, as well as anti-authoritarian writers, saw significant spikes during periods of conscription announcements and heightened casualties.
The researchers believe that the Kremlin risks a tipping point of public dissent if it continues to force Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine. They argue that a growing reliance on aerial bombardment and the use of convicts in the fighting could be a response to the potential consequences of mobilizing its citizens.
Overall, the study underscores the importance of online search data in understanding public sentiment in repressive states, highlighting the discrepancy between official polling data and the reality experienced by ordinary Russians.