It’s not just Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Even Pokemon Go, the mega-popular smartphone game that became a phenomenon last year, was the target of Russian agents trying to meddle with the 2016 US election, according to a report Thursday by CNN.
The effort was allegedly centered on a campaign called “Don’t Shoot Us,” an apparent reference “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a mantra in widespread use after the shooting of Michael Brown.
The campaign is said to be tied to agents in Russia, and it reportedly used social media services like Facebook and Twitter to try to exploit racial tensions in the US. But there was one surprise target: Pokemon Go.
In playing Pokemon Go, people go to real-world locations to find and train digital monsters, which appear on their phone screens against the landscape picked up by the phones’ cameras.
According to the CNN report, the Don’t Shoot Us campaign announced a contest on its Tumblr page in July 2016 for Pokemon Go players. The contest encouraged them to visit locations where alleged cases of police brutality took place. Players were also asked to give their Pokemon critters the names of people shot by police, including Eric Garner. The campaign offered players Amazon gift cards as rewards.
The CNN report says it’s not clear what the campaign was trying to accomplish with the Pokemon Go contest, though it might have been to upset the people living near those places and remind them of the police brutality issues.
Niantic, the game developer behind Pokemon Go, said the game itself was not compromised.
“It’s clear from the images shared with us by CNN that our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission,” a Niantic spokesman said in a statement. “It is important to note that Pokemon Go, as a platform, was not and cannot be used to share information between users in the app, so our platform was in no way being used. This ‘contest’ required people to take screen shots from their phone and share over other social networks, not within our game.”
Pokemon Go was only one of several popular services used by the Don’t Shoot Us campaign, the CNN report said. The same group had accounts on YouTube and Tumblr, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, services that have already been named as being used by Russian-affiliated accounts to promote divisive content online.
Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.
Silicon Valley has been under intense scrutiny as the federal government delves into what happened during the election. Facebook, Twitter and Google are expected to testify on Nov. 1 in Congressional hearings about foreign actors using social media to try to interfere with the election.
Tech giants themselves have been investigating possible Russian meddling as they look to fend off the threat of potential regulation. Facebook, Twitter and Google have conducted their own internal probes and said they would cooperate with federal investigators.
Facebook earlier this month handed over 3,000 ads from Russian-linked accounts to Congress. Twitter said last month it discovered 201 accounts that appeared to be tied to the same Russian accounts that purchased ads on Facebook. Google is conducting its own internal investigation, and reportedly found that Russians spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads on YouTube, Gmail and Google search.
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