Russians ‘used Pokemon Go to sow division’ in run-up to US presidential election

A Russian-linked account reportedly used the popular video game Pokemon Go to draw attention to alleged police brutality in the United States.

A report by CNN adds another detail to the emerging portrait of Russian efforts to shape public opinion and foment discord in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

After American intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched a wide-ranging campaign to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”, Facebook revealed that Russian entities had purchased thousands of advertisements intended to widen divisions around contentious issues like race and gun rights.

Among the topics reportedly addressed was the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to draw attention to African-Americans dying at the hands of police officers. According to CNN, one of the artificial accounts Facebook has taken down was entitled “Don’t Shoot Us” and was used to disseminate information about incidents of police brutality.

The effort reportedly enlisted Pokemon Go, a game in which players use their smartphones to “catch” digital creatures superimposed on the real world. CNN found that Don’t Shoot Us encouraged users to play near sites of reported police violence and to name their Pokemon “with a US police brutality victim’s name”.

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 can’t use the app to share information with other players. 

Facebook did not respond to a request to confirm that Don’t Shoot Us was among the suspended accounts.

Congressional investigators are keenly 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 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,” Ms Sandberg said.


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Hillary Clinton: The Russians, Facebook and Fake News Made Me Lose

Looking back on her failed presidential election campaign, former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday she takes responsibility for every political decision she made, but “that’s not why I lost.”

In addition to press attention focused on her use of a personal email server—which Clinton called a “nothing-burger” that the New York Times “covered like it was Pearl Harbor”—the former Secretary of State said that she was subjected to an unprecedented campaign of fake news and social engineering on Facebook, orchestrated by Russian agents and an army of bots.

Clinton told attendees at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. that while her campaign used social media to reach out to potential voters and supporters, Republican groups engaged in the “weaponization of technology” to push a message about her and the risks of electing her president.

Critics of Clinton note that even if there was interference via Facebook involving Russians or Republicans, her campaign still failed on some basic political grounds, including not campaigning in key states such as Wisconsin and relying on bad polling data.

The former candidate acknowledged some mistakes along those lines, but spent most of her time talking about the underhanded attempts by various groups to sway public opinion against her.

“Here’s what the other side was doing,” she told interviewers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of tech news site Recode. “Through content farms, through an enormous investment in falsehoods, fake news, call it what you will—lies—the other side was using content that was just flat out false, and delivering it both above and below the radar screen.”

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In terms of Facebook, Clinton said that the “vast majority” of news items that appeared on the social network about her were fake. This orchestrated campaign was “connected, as we now know, to a thousand Russian agents [and] connected to the bots, which are just out of control,” she said.

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Clinton referred to a recently declassified report from the Director of National Intelligence that said that a number of intelligence agencies agreed there was Russian involvement in the campaign. The FBI is currently investigating whether there was collusion between the Trump camp and the Russian government.

“Read the declassified report that came out in early January,” Clinton said. “Seventeen agencies all in agreement—they concluded with high confidence that the Russians ran an extensive information war campaign against my campaign to influence voters in the election.”

These fake news stories helped convince potential voters not to support her, Clinton said. And the former Secretary of State said she and her campaign were convinced of Russian government involvement in a disinformation campaign and other dirty tricks early on.

“We went and told anyone we could find that the Russians were messing with the election and we were basically shoo’d away,” Clinton said. “We couldn’t get the press to cover it.”

Clinton also referred to Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis company that specializes in using demographic and data about online behavior to target political and advertising messages. Some have credited the firm—which is controlled by Robert Mercer, a prominent backer of the ultimately successful Trump campaign—with helping to sway the election.

The former Senator said that it’s important for people in the technology and business worlds to understand the connections between “domestic fake news operations” and the sophisticated attempts by Russian cyber agents to influence user behavior.

“How did they know what messages to deliver?” Clinton asked, referring to the Russians. “Who told them? Who were they colluding with?” She also called on Facebook to do more about fake news on the network. “They’ve got to curate the news more effectively,” she said. “They’ve got to help prevent fake news from creating a new reality.”