Russia’s wide-ranging disinformation attack on the 2016 US election even used Pokémon Go as part of its effort to minimize African American voter turnout, according to a report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The study, authored by a Columbia University professor and private sector researchers, found links between a YouTube account run by a Russian troll farm and a Tumblr post encouraging Pokémon Go players to name their Pokémon after police brutality victims.
The report focuses on the activities of the Internet Research Agency, an organization funded by an oligarch close to the Kremlin, that specializes in social media influence campaigns. It details its multimillion-dollar push to influence the US presidential elections.
A key IRA target were African Americans, who typically vote Democrat. Russian operatives aimed to convince them either not to vote or to vote for third party candidates, like the Green Party’s Jill Stein, reports have found. One of their strategies was posting content about mass incarceration and police brutality against African Americans to gain a large following, and then encouraging those followers not to vote.
The researchers discovered that the email address linked to a YouTube account named “Don’t Shoot,” one of 17 YouTube accounts used by the IRA, was tied to the Tumblr blogger writing about Pokémon Go. Including the game in the operation shows ”the fluid, evolving, and innovative tactical approach the IRA leveraged to interfere in US politics and culture,” they wrote.
Pokémon Go was met with wild popularity upon its release in 2016. Its usage quickly plummeted, reportedly down to around 5 million active users by the end of that year. However, this past summer, the game’s maker, Niantic, said it had tens of millions of monthly users.
“It’s clear that our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission,” Niantic said in a statement, while noting that users didn’t directly share information over Pokémon Go.
Nintendo, one of the owners of the Pokémon brand, didn’t respond to a phone message for comment on Monday.
Correction (Dec. 19, 9:15am ET): A previous version of this story (published Dec. 17) inaccurately identified Nintendo, one of the owners of the Pokémon brand, as the game’s maker. The story has also been amended to reflect that there were 5 million monthly users at the end of 2016, not today as originally reported.