“How do we get them to have ‘Pokémon-go-to-the-polls?”
That was what I assumed would be the first and last time Pokémon GO and the 2016 election would intersect, when Hillary Clinton uttered that cringeworthy line at a campaign rally last year.
I was wrong.
Yesterday, CNN broke a story that tracked the online activity of a Russia-linked Facebook account across other forms of social media. The account, which founded the page “Don’t Shoot Us,” was meant to be a faux-Black Lives Matter-type activist group, but the 254,000 member page was actually run by members of the Internet Research Agency, what CNN calls a “Kremlin-linked troll farm.”
The group had presences across YouTube and Instagram as well as Facebook, but one of the most bizarre actions the page took was on its Tumblr site. In July 2016 when Pokémon GO fever was at its peak, Don’t Shoot Us created a contest that asked users to travel to sites where police had killed black victims, take over a nearby gym, and station a Pokémon there named after a police violence victim. Then you’d screenshot it, send it in and be eligible for Amazon gift cards.
It is a…confusing stunt to say the least. CNN says they have no evidence anyone ever actually took part in this contest, or whether prizes were ever awarded. It’s also not clear at all what the point of something like this would be, other than to make BLM-aligned groups look goofy or insensitive.
But this link, however bizarre, has caused GO developer Niantic to comment immediately, refuting they had any idea this was happening and that this event was not facilitated through the game itself.
“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,” Niantic said in a statement. “It is important to note that Pokémon 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. Niantic will consider our response as we learn more.”
It strikes me as mildly amusing that the one feature fans have been asking for in Pokémon GO for ages, a way to communicate with other players, is cited as Niantic’s best defense that the app was never used directly to organize an event like this, as it was all done through third parties. Clearly it’s impossible to find fault with Niantic here, as the trolls were just capitalizing on what at the time was a world-sweeping phenomenon, even if their ultimate goals were nebulous.
I asked mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower why they thought GO was used here, and what they made of this strange situation.
“In the months leading up to the election last fall, Pokémon GO was immensely popular in the U.S. and was able to mobilize large groups of people to gather in one physical location,” Sensor Tower told me. “This is what seemed to be happening here—by piggybacking on the game’s location-based concept and substantial player base, one could tap into a pool of millions of daily active users at the time and direct them to real-world locations with the promise of some kind of payout. And Pokémon GO players were already used to promises like free lures set up by business owners in order to drive foot traffic to restaurants, shops, and other locations. Not to mention social media was full of screenshots from players showcasing Pokémon in unusual locations.”
I guess the theory here is that BLM-sympathetic players could be directed to specific spots for some sort of further mischief, but again, the plan seems just plain weird, and feels more like a “look what this dumb social justice group is doing!” concept that had the potential to go viral online, though it never did (until now).
The news media’s reaction to this has been predictably alarmist, with The Hill tweeting earlier “Russia used Pokémon GO to interfere in 2016 election” with a link to their re-write of CNN’s story. Twitter was framing it in a similar fashion as the game began to trend, saying GO was “used to influence the 2016 election. That makes it sound like GO was somehow compromised in some way to give access to personal information of voters or something when nothing at all like that happened. While this was a group that was apparently trying to influence the conversation about the US election in a number of ways on Russia’s behalf, it’s hard to view this GO connection as some sort of master plot with any potential effect on the outcome at all. Still, it does appear to be part of an effort to discredit a liberal movement in the form of Black Lives Matter, which is its own kind of political sabotage.
This is one of those stories that is going to be wielded by both sides to further their points of view. To some this will be further evidence that Russia’s influence extends worryingly deep into American culture and politics, and while this specific plan was pointless, it shows what kinds of crazy things they’ll try. To others, it’s another example of “Russia ate my homework” where everything that ails the country and Democrats is blamed on Russia.
The facts are that this was a Russian troll brigade using Pokémon GO to try to discredit liberal black activists. It did…not actually accomplish that, and if it had deeper aims, those remains unclear. It is likely this was just one a thousand mini-plots these trolls came up with. It only takes one crazy fake story to go viral on a platform like Facebook, but we’re looking at one idea that more or less blew up on the launchpad, only unearthed because of this post-mortem investigation.
This will not be last time bad actors try to use video games for nefarious purposes, but in this case, the plot seems more strange than scary.
More Info: www.forbes.com