A Russian-operated disinformation group incorporated Pokémon Go into its extensive attacks targeting the 2016 presidential election, according to a report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Commission. The effort relied in part on an invented group that claimed to be affiliated with Black Lives Matters, and which targeted African-American voters.
CNN first reported the Pokémon Go connection in October 2017, and the Senate report, released today, provides significant confirmation.
Targeted users were encouraged to change their Pokémon Go names to that of victims of police brutality, according to researchers at New Knowledge, a company that more typically works to protected brands against disinformation campaigns. New Knowledge was given access to a large array of posts across Facebook, (FB) Twitter, (TWTR) and Alphabet (GOOG) properties and other platforms to examine Russia’s Internet Research Agency attempts to sway voters.
Pokémon Go is an augmented-reality game developed by Niantic Labs, in which players have to visit specific real-world locations to collect Pokémon characters or perform training actions. In a statement, Niantic noted in a statement that the disinformation effort asked those targeted to “take screenshots from their phone and share over the social networks, not within our game.” The company said that “our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission” and “our platform was in no way being used.”
The Senate report stated that the Russian campaign used Pokémon Go as one piece of a larger campaign to recruit African-Americans via social media, games, and other methods through topics believed to generate interest, like police brutality. After gaining trust and interest, these accounts then encouraged potential black voters to stay away from the polls or vote for third-party candidates.
According to the report, Russian operatives created messages like “Black people don’t have to vote for Hillary because she is liar! Black people are smart enough to understand that Hillary doesn’t deserve our votes!” and “Stop being slave of Democrat plantation!” The messages and graphics created for the campaign appear to contain basic mistakes in English grammar uncommon to American speakers of any dialect, such as on one contest promotion: “We will send a $100 Amazon Gifting Card to the person who will capture most GYMS.”
With the data provided by social-media and other platforms, New Knowledge was able to connect directly email addresses and other accounts used to coordinate campaigns across the Internet, and more effectively identify state actors
Updated on Dec. 18, 4:00 p.m.: This story was updated to add comment from Niantic Labs.