How People Are Using Restaurant Reviews To Spread News In Russia

When you look up restaurant reviews, it's usually because you want to know if the food is good. For some people living in Russia, on the other hand, it recently became a bit more complicated. CNET reports that Google Reviews for restaurants located in Moscow and St. Petersburg are now being saturated with information about the situation in Ukraine. Using Google Reviews as social media may seem strange, but the outlet says it's one of the only ways to share information without any media bias or possible censorship from the Russian government.

As TIME explains, the majority of Russia's television networks and news outlets are owned by the federal government, which means almost every headline and news story is perpetuating what President Vladimir Putin wants his citizens to believe. Most Russian media in fact only refers to the war as a "military operation," claiming that no Ukrainian civilians are in danger because only military targets are being attacked.

As for what's actually happening in Ukraine, Russian citizens are left in the dark as journalists are forced to censor themselves or else they jeopardize their lives and jobs. But while most media reports in the country cannot be trusted, anonymous restaurant reviews apparently can.

What are people writing in the restaurant reviews?

Not only does the Russian government control the news, it also controls what can be posted on social media. This led Reface, a smartphone app based in Ukraine, to hide news about the invasion in a push notification, VICE reports. Though Reface is nothing but a face-swapping app, its notification was able to bypass Russia's censorship — something Facebook and Twitter were unable to do. When clicked, the notification shared details and pictures Russian citizens couldn't access through other avenues.

Though Reface's notification was only sent to users who have downloaded the app, Google Reviews are public. Ukrainians and others located outside of Russia who can freely post to the platform are therefore sharing as much information as they can without being flagged for spam. A Twitter user who identifies as part of the group Anonymous reminded people to leave five-star reviews in order to avoid interfering with business, sharing an example review which translates to, "The food was great! Unfortunately, Putin spoiled our appetites by invading Ukraine." In addition to the reviews, other self-declared members of Anonymous are attempting to hack Russian websites, looking for information and other ways to support Ukraine (via CNBC).

Other reviews, such as the ones posted under Moscow's Grand Cafe Dr. Jhivago, are more direct, warning that the government is lying and Ukrainian civilians are dying every day. CNET shared screenshots of the reviews, however it appears many have already been taken down.