Exclusive: Even Pokémon Go used by extensive Russian-linked meddling effort

Source:   —  October 13, 2017, at 5:05 AM

Russian efforts to meddle in American politics didn't finish at Facebook and Twitter. A CNN investigation of a Russian-linked account shows its tentacles extended to YouTube, Tumblr and even Pokémon Go.

Exclusive: Even Pokémon Go used by extensive Russian-linked meddling effort

Russian efforts to meddle in American politics didn't finish at Facebook and Twitter. A CNN investigation of a Russian-linked account shows its tentacles extended to YouTube, Tumblr and even Pokémon Go.

One Russian-linked campaign posing as portion of the Black Lives Matter movement used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and Pokémon Go and even contacted some reporters in an effort to exploit racial tensions and sow discord among Americans, CNN has learned.

The campaign, titled "Don't Shoot Us," offers new insights into how Russian agents created a wide online ecosystem where divisive political messages were reinforced across multiple platforms, amplifying a campaign that appears to have been running from one source -- the shadowy, Kremlin-linked troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to CNN that the Don't Shoot Us Facebook page was one of the four hundred seventy accounts taken down after the company determined they were linked to the IRA. CNN has separately established the links between the Facebook page and the other Don't Shoot Us accounts.

The Don't Shoot Us campaign -- the title of which may have referenced the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" slogan that became favorite in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown -- used these platforms to highlight incidents of alleged police brutality, with what may have been the dual goal of galvanizing African Americans to protest and encouraging other Americans to view black activism as a rising threat.

The Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts belonging to the campaign are currently suspended. The group'south YouTube channel and website were both still active as of Thursday morning. The Tumblr page presently posts about Palestine.

Related: Exclusive: Russian-linked grouping sold merchandise online

All of the aforementioned companies declined to comment on the Don't Shoot Us campaign. Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, have agreed to testify before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on November one, according to sources at all three companies.

Tracing the links between the various Don't Shoot Us social media accounts shows how one YouTube video or Twitter post could lead users down a rabbit hole of activist messaging and ultimately encourage them to get action.

The Don't Shoot Us YouTube page, which is simply titled "Don't Shoot," contains more than two hundred videos of news reports, police surveillance tape and amateur footage showing incidents of alleged police brutality. These videos, which were posted between May and December of two thousand sixteen, have been viewed more than 368.000 times.

All of these YouTube videos link back to a donotshoot. us website. This website was registered in March two thousand sixteen to a "Receptionist York" in Illinois. Public records don't indicate any proof that someone named Receptionist York lives in Illinois. The Str address and phone no listed in the website'south registration belong to a shopping mall in N Riverside, Illinois.

The donotshoot. us website in turn links to a Tumblr account. In July two thousand sixteen, this Tumblr account announced a contest encouraging readers to play Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game in which users go out into the genuine world and utilize their phones to discover and "train" Pokémon characters.

Specifically, the Don't Shoot Us contest directed readers to go to discover and train Pokémon close locations where alleged incidents of police brutality had taken place. Users were instructed to give their Pokémon names corresponding with those of the victims. A post promoting the contest showed a Pokémon named "Eric Garner," for the African-American man who died after being keep in a chokehold by a NY Police Dept officer.

Winners of the contest would get Amazon gift cards, the announcement said.

It'south unclear what the people behind the contest hoped to accomplish, though it may have been to remind people living close places where these incidents had taken space of what'd happened and to upset or annoyance them.

An image promoting the Pokémon Go contest running by Don't Shoot Us.

CNN hasn't found any proof that any Pokémon Go users attempted to enter the contest, or whether any of the Amazon Gift Cards that were promised were ever awarded -- or, indeed, whether the people who designed the contest ever had any intention of awarding the prizes.

"It'south 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, the makers of Pokémon Go, said in a statement provided to CNN.

"It's necessary to note that Pokémon GO, as a platform, wasn't and cannot be used to share information between users in the app so our platform was in number way being used. This 'contest' required people to get screen shots from their phone and share over other social networks, not within our game. Niantic will consider our response as we learn more."

The Tumblr page that promoted the contest number longer posts about U. S. police violence. It presently appears to be devoted pro-Palestine campaigns.

Tumblr wouldn't confirm to CNN if the same people who operated the Tumblr page about Black Lives Matter presently work the pro-Palestinian page, citing the company'south privacy policy. Tumblr also wouldn't declare whether it's investigating potential Russian utilize of its platform before, during or after the two thousand sixteen presidential election.

Related: Facebook could still be weaponized again for the two thousand eighteen midterms

Don't Shoot Us also worked to spread its influence beyond the digital world.

It used Facebook -- on which it'd more than 254.000 likes as of September two thousand sixteen -- to publicize at minimum one real-world event designed to show up to be portion of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Just a day after the shooting of Philando Castile by police in a suburb of Saint Paul, MN in July two thousand sixteen, local activists in MN noticed a Facebook event for a protest being shared by a grouping they didn't recognize.

Don't Shoot Us was publicizing a protest exterior the St. Anthony Police Department, where Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, worked. Local activists had been protesting exterior the MN Governor'south Mansion.

When an activist grouping with ties to a local union reached out to the page, someone with Don't Shoot Us replied and explained that they weren't in MN but planned to open a "chapter" in the state in the following months.

The local grouping became more suspicious. After investigating further, including finding the website registration information showing a mall address, they posted on their website to declare that Don't Shoot Us was a "total troll job."

CNN has reached out to those local activists but hadn't heard back as of the time of this article'south publication.

Brandon Long, the state party chairman of the Green Party of Minnesota, remembers hearing about the planned Don't Shoot Us event. He told CNN, "We frequently support Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations and we know beautiful much all the organizers in town and that page wasn't recognized by anyone."

This wasn't the only event that Don't Shoot Us worked to promote.

In June two thousand sixteen, someone using the Gmail address that'd been posted as portion of the Pokémon Go contest promotion reached out to Brandon Weigel, an editor at Baltimore City Paper, to promote a protest at a courthouse where one of the officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray was due to appear.

The email made Weigel suspicious. "City Paper editors and reporters are familiar with many of the activist groups doing work in Baltimore, so it was unusual to get an email from an exterior grouping trying to start a protest exterior the courthouse," Weigel told CNN.

Weigel wasn't the only reporter to be on the receiving finish of communications from Don't Shoot Us. Latest January, someone named Daniel Reed, who was described as the "Chief Editor" of DoNotShoot. Us, gave an interview to a contributor at the presently defunct International Press Foundation (IPF), a website where students and trainee journalists regularly posted articles.

"There is number civilised country in the world that suffers so many cases of police brutality against civilians," IPF quoted "Reed" as saying, among other things. (IPF was responsible for the British spelling of "civilised.")

The IPF contributor confirmed to CNN that the interview occurred through email and that she never spoke to "Reed" on the phone. The email address that "Reed" used for the interview was the same one that reached out to Weigel in Baltimore and that was included in the promotion for the Pokémon Go contest.

"Reed" sent the answers to IPF'south questions in a four-page Microsoft Word document. The document, which outlined what "Reed" described as problems with the American justice system and police brutality, was written entirely in English.

However, when CNN examined the document metadata, "Название," the Russian word for "name," was portion of the document properties.

Two cybersecurity experts who reviewed the document'south metadata told CNN that it was likely created on a computer or a program running Russian as its primary language.

To date, Facebook has said that it identified four hundred seventy accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, while Twitter has identified two hundred one accounts. Google hasn't released its findings, though CNN has confirmed that the company has identified tens of thousands of dollars spent on ad buys by Russian accounts.

Facebook and Twitter have submitted detailed records of their findings to both Congress and the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who's conducting an investigation into Russian meddling in the two thousand sixteen presidential campaign.

-- CNN'south Jose Pagliery and Tal Yellin contributed reporting.

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