Pikachu peekaboo: Russia used Pokemon Go to "sow discord"

Just how much of our social outrage can be traced back to Russia’s “war-like acts” over the last couple of years? How deeply does the Russian influence campaign go? As deep as Pokemon Go, according to a report last night from CNN, in which Russian disruption efforts focused on generating rallies for Black Lives Matter through the social-media game:

Russian efforts to meddle in American politics did not end 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 part 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 broad online ecosystem where divisive political messages were reinforced across multiple platforms, amplifying a campaign that appears to have been run 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 470 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.

Just how did Russians exploit Pokemon Go to throw the election to Donald Trump? Er .. they didn’t. As CNN notes, this project attempted to rally those opposed to Trump and stoke their anger and outrage. The method here seems pretty silly, especially for a supposedly sophisticated foreign intelligence service. According to a description at The Hill, the website sponsored contests in the game to point players towards sites where police brutality allegedly occurred, and then to rename their Pokemon characters after the victims.

Clearly this was a lower-priority distribution method than Facebook and other social media, but it points out something that has been widely overlooked about the Russian effort. It was a kind of Merry Prankster project without any “merriness” in it, intended to undermine American democracy rather than get a specific outcome in the election. That’s also why Russia has supported and sometimes funded fringe separatist movements, including Yes California’s secession effort as well as similar groups in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.

Even the Facebook effort, which seems to have been the central focus of disinformation by Russian intelligence, is tough to take seriously as a threat. Russian groups spent around $100,000 on Facebook ads in an election cycle where the two main presidential candidates spent well over $400 million on direct advertising on their own, let alone the hundreds of millions spent by outside groups and the political parties. The force-multiplier for Russia has been the hysterical media coverage ever since, which has hyperbolized the threat so much that it’s having precisely the impact Russia intended all along — to undermine the credibility of American democracy and elections.

We need to face the threat that Russia poses to the US, but do so intelligently and rationally. We must make a few sacrifices in this conflict, and chief among those is our addiction to instant outrage. In other words, beware of Pickachus bearing tiffs.