view counter

The Russian connectionRussia used Pokemon Go "to sow division” in run-up to 2016 presidential election

Published 13 October 2017

CNN broke the news yesterday that Russian government hackers did not only use Facebook, Twitter, and Google platforms for a broad, systematic, and sophisticated disinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2016 election – they also used the popular video game Pokemon Go. The game was used to promote a Black Lives Matter-like message about police brutality, aiming to discourage African American voters from going to the polls, while creating a White backlash against those criticizing the police.

CNN broke the news yesterday that Russian government hackers did not only use Facebook, Twitter, and Google platforms for a broad, systematic, and sophisticated disinformation campaign to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election – they also used the popular video game Pokemon Go.

The Russian campaign on the different social media platforms consisted of ads, messages, and posts generated by thousands of fake accounts, internet trolls, and social bots. The massive wave of Russian disinformation consisted of three different types of ads, messages, and posts. The two smaller categories were those touting Trump and those extolling Bernie Sanders and Green Party’s candidate Jill Stein (the latter group of ads and messages was aimed to encourage left-leaning voters to stay home rather than vote for Hillary Clinton).

The largest groups of false and misleading ads, messages, and posts aimed to help Trump win the election by creating a political climate which would be more hospitable to his populist-nationalist message. These ads used false information, fake news, and fictional stories to inflame racial animosity, deepen ethnic and religious division, and intensify social discord. The Russian operatives also created ads lending evidential “support” for the most outlandish conspiracy theories disseminated by pro-Trump media personalities like Sean Hannity and Alex Jones.

The Russian government operatives used sophisticated population segmentation software used in the world of business to identify and target specific voter groups in crucial swing states.

The Russian campaign – some of it still on-going — aimed not only to help Trump win, but, more broadly, to weaken America by discrediting the country’s political institutions and processes, and deepening internal discord and conflict.

The unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community was that Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched a wide-ranging campaign to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”

CNN reports that The Russian operatives used Pokemon Go to air an ad which aimed to draw attention to alleged police brutality in the United States (some of the Russian ads on Facebook had the same theme).

In Pokemon Go, players use their smartphones to “catch” digital creatures superimposed on the real world. CNN found that a Russian-produced “Don’t Shoot Us” ad encouraged Pokemon Go users to play near sites of reported police violence and to name their Pokemon “with a U.S. police brutality victim’s name.”

Analysts say that the seemingly pro-Black Lives Matter ad had two goals. Discourage African American voters from voting by portraying U.S. law enforcement as discriminatory and brutal regardless of which party is in power. At the same time, the ad aimed to promote White backlash in support of law enforcement which, according to the more law-and-order segment of the voting public, is under unjustified criticism by African Americans.

Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, said in a statement that “our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission” and that “our platform was in no way being used” because players cannot use the app to share information with other players. 

CNN notes that Congressional investigators are focused on the role social media platforms may have played in helping to disseminate Russian-generated content. Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been invited to testify on 1 November on the matter in an upcoming open hearing.

In an interview on Thursday with Axios, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said Congress should publicly release the Russian-linked ads the social media giant has turned over.

“Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened, especially troubling foreign interference in a democratic election,” Sandberg said.