Future Tense

The Strangest Incident of Russian Meddling in 2016 Involved Black Lives Matter and Pókemon Go

Leave them out of this.

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Were there any internet platforms that Russia-affiliated operatives didn’t use as part of their efforts to sway the 2016 election and secure Donald Trump’s victory? Facebook and Twitter were the first to come under scrutiny. Now, as CNN reported Thursday, we know that even Pokémon Go—seriously, Pokémon Go—was also enmeshed in Russia’s apparent misinformation campaign.

According to the report, a campaign that appeared to come from the Black Lives Matter movement calling itself “Do Not Shoot Us” was actually puppeted by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, a known troll farm that has been behind scores of fake social-media accounts, Facebook groups, and campaigns that aimed at deepening political divides and manipulating voters in the run up to Election Day. The name “Don’t Shoot Us” is likely a play on the chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a hallmark of demonstrations against police violence after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The fake campaign could have been an attempt to ratchet up racial tensions in the U.S. during an already intense election cycle.

Do Not Shoot Us used an array of social-media platforms to broadcast incidents of police brutality, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pokémon Go. The Facebook page was one of the 470 pages that Facebook flagged as having possible ties to the Russian government that bought 3,000 ads on the social network during the 2016 campaign. Those ads were handed over to Congress, and Facebook says it will publicly share the content of them soon.

The YouTube videos linked to a website, donotshoot.us, which as of Thursday afternoon was still active. There’s also a Do Not Shoot Us Tumblr site, where CNN found a July 2016 post proposing the site’s visitors find Pokémon Go gyms near where alleged incidents of police voice had occurred. It then recommended that Pokémon Go players name their characters after victims—one post showed a Pokémon named Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer who was arresting him in 2014.  The Pokémon Go promotion included chopped English, likely because English isn’t the native language of the person who wrote it. “We will send a $100 Amazon Gifting Card for the person who will capture the most GYMS,” it read. It’s unclear if anyone fell for the contest.

“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,” said Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, in a statement to CNN. “This ‘contest’ required people to take screen shots from their phone and share over other social networks, not within our game.” That particular Tumblr, which was still active Thursday afternoon, has now become a site that posts about Palestine.

What appears to be the official Don’t Shoot Us campaign website has at least a dozen petitions that garnered thousands of signatures on issues related to police violence. One of those petitions calls for justice against a police officer named Sean Thompson in Bexar County, Texas, who shot a pit bull in August 2016. The petition, which appears to have collected more than 360 signatures, is rife with grammatical errors and odd capitalizations, again probably because the author isn’t a native English speaker. This incident actually did happen, according to Bexar County police, who I called Thursday. Still, it’s not clear why this particular incident was promoted by the Do Not Shoot Us campaign of alleged Russian origins other than to demonstrate police violence—and further inflame political tensions.

The Don’t Shoot Us campaign also spilled offline. According to the report, Don’t Shoot Us created a Facebook event for a protest outside the St. Anthony Police Department near St. Paul, Minnesota, which was spotted by real local activists the day after Philando Castile was killed by police. The St. Anthony Police Department was where the officer who shot Castile was stationed. The local activists reached out to the Don’t Shoot Us page and looked into the registration of their website, which CNN notes included registration information that led to a mall address.

Individuals from the Don’t Shoot Us group also contacted journalists in the Baltimore area about a protest they were organizing outside a courthouse. One person who wrote about the protest conducted an email interview with someone claiming to be “Daniel Reed,” the “chief editor” of DoNotShoot.Us. His responses were sent in a Word doc. CNN examined the document and found “Название,” the Russian word for “name,” as meta data in the file.

This new case shows how the Russian disinformation campaign stretched well beyond Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the three companies that have been asked to testify in Congress about how Russian-backed forces apparently manipulated their platforms to deceive Americans and meddle with the presidential election. It also clearly shows that these fake campaigns weren’t simply trying to convince Americans to not vote for Hillary Clinton or to vote for Donald Trump. This campaign appears to be engaged in a sustained, deep disinformation effort intended to rile up racial tensions in the United States. The involvement of Pókemon Go may feel strange and goofy, but it also suggests there were no corners of the internet where the operatives looking to throttle our elections were unwilling to go.

Read more in Slate about Russia’s 2016 election meddling.