Ukrainian-language accounts claimed edits targeted gas stations, schools, and hospitals in cities like Kyiv.
BuzzFeed News Reporter
BuzzFeed News Reporter
A building is seen damaged after the previous day’s Russian missile attacks in Vasylkiv, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on March 1, 2022.
On Thursday, the State Special Communications Service of Ukraine called claims that Google Maps “labels” were being used by Russia’s military “another fake.” In a post to its official Telegram channel, the country’s intelligence agency debunked a wave of social media rumors that claimed Russian insurgents had tagged airstrike locations on Google Maps of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.
The agency described these false claims as a psychological operation “to sow panic and misinformation among the population.”
On Tuesday, responding to claims that its Maps were being used to coordinate Russian military activity in Ukraine, Google began removing user-submitted locations within the borders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The company is removing new content such as photos and business information “out of an abundance of caution,” a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Across social media platforms on Tuesday, people accused Google Maps of hosting content allegedly used to target airstrikes on cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv.
“The tags in Google Maps were created on Feb 28th, and people noticed that the tags match the places the missile strikes today,” one of these individuals, Oleksandr Balatskyi, told BuzzFeed News in a Twitter DM. People claimed that the tags, or user-generated pins, began appearing yesterday with titles such as “ФЕРМЕРСЬКЕ ГОСПОДАРСТВО,” or Ukrainian for “farm,” and “СІЛЬСКЕ ГОСПОДАРСТВО,” or Ukrainian for “agriculture.”
BuzzFeed News could not independently verify the existence of specific pins, or the claim that Russia’s military added them to Google Maps. Dozens of Twitter users have shared the same set of screenshots showing pins labeled “ФЕРМЕРСЬКЕ ГОСПОДАРСТВО” in Kyiv, though it is unclear when they were created and by whom.
After investigating the claims, Google said that some of the edits that reference farms were made more than a year ago. Still, the company said it is removing edits made to maps in the region since Feb. 24, and it would pause new edits.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we are removing user contributions like photos, videos, reviews and business information and all user-submitted places from Google Maps in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus since the invasion began, and are temporarily blocking new edits from being made,” a Google spokesperson said.
Google also told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that it is implementing an analysis of Ukraine maps data to detect and remove inaccurate business information.
Claims of Google Maps tags being used to coordinate attacks were shared in the Ukrainian parliament’s Telegram channel.
Ukrainian-language accounts on Twitter and Telegram urged people to report suspicious location tags to Google Maps. A Google Maps help request posted on Tuesday asked the company to “limit the creation of labels on the territory of Ukraine until the end of the war with Russia.” The request was later shared to the Ukrainian parliament’s Telegram channel.
In the days since the invasion, Google has disabled certain features from its Maps app, including live traffic information and data about how busy places are, in order to protect the safety of Ukrainians after speaking to local authorities.
On Friday, the Ukrainian news outlet Kyiv Independent tweeted that Kyiv city administrators warned citizens “to check for and obscure any markings on the roofs of their buildings” that could have been painted to guide Russian bombers. And it appears some Ukrainian citizens believe that digital markers could be used to target them as well.
Since Russia launched its deadly invasion last week, Silicon Valley companies have been facing intense pressure to safeguard their services from abuse. Over the weekend, Facebook and Twitter said they had taken down two disinformation campaigns pushing anti-Ukraine agendas. One of the campaigns had used artificial intelligence to create fake personas posing as bloggers to spread the false information. On Monday, YouTube, which is owned by Google, said it had removed a series of channels associated with one of the campaigns. On Tuesday, Apple announced it had halted all product sales and limited Apple Pay use in Russia, and disabled traffic and live incident features in Apple Maps in Ukraine.
YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok have also banned Russian state-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik across their platforms in Europe, and Apple has removed them from the App Store outside of Russia.
This story has been updated to include a Telegram statement from the State Special Communications Service of Ukraine, which called claims that Russia’s military was using Google Maps false.
Sarah Emerson is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Oakland.
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Richard Nieva is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.