Russian cyber experts used the smartphone game Pokemon Go as part of their attempts to meddle with US politics, according to an investigation by CNN.
Under the banner of Don’t Shoot Us, a collective that seemed to share the aims of Black Lives Matter but which is now believed to have been run by Russians, online participants were encouraged to use the game to inflame racial tensions.
Players were told to visit real-world sites where police brutality had been recorded, and give their Pokemon characters names of victims, such as Eric Garner, who died on Staten Island.
The winners of the Pokemon contest would receive Amazon gift cards after sharing images on social media, the Don’t Shoot Us site said.
It is believed the campaign was an attempt to encourage black activism and sow discord between Americans. CNN said it had no evidence of anyone actually claiming the prize.
"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, the makers of Pokémon Go, said in a statement provided to CNN.
"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."
The Don’t Shoot Us site also had a YouTube and Tumblr account, and people claiming to be spokespeople for the collective even contacted some reporters in an effort to exploit racial tensions and sow discord among Americans, CNN said.
The sites may have had “the dual goal of galvanising African Americans to protest and encouraging other Americans to view black activism as a rising threat,” the network claimed.
A source 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 Internet Research Agency – a Kremlin-linked “troll farm”.
The Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts belonging to the campaign are currently suspended.
The group's YouTube channel and website were both still active as of Thursday morning.
The Tumblr page now posts about Palestine.
The Don't Shoot Us YouTube page contains more than 200 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 2016, have been viewed more than 368,000 times.
The site is registered to a "Clerk York" in Illinois, but CNN were unable to find anyone of that name, and the given address is a shopping centre.
In a similarly mysterious manner, the Facebook page of Don’t Shoot Us promoted a protest in the days after the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota in July 2016. But local activists were suspicious, having never heard of the organisation. When they contacted Don’t Shoot Us, the group said they were considering opening a “chapter” of their organisation.
Around the same time, Brandon Weigel, an editor at Baltimore City Paper, was emailed about a protest in Baltimore outside a courthouse where one of the officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray was due to appear.
Weigel told CNN he was suspicious, as he had never heard of them.
The same email account was used by someone calling himself Daniel Reed, who was described as the "Chief Editor" of DoNotShoot.Us. He gave an interview to a contributor at the now defunct International Press Foundation (IPF), a website where students and trainee journalists regularly posted articles – but the emailed interview, obtained by CNN, contained words which had evidently been translated from Cyrillic.
Facebook has said that it identified 470 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, while Twitter has identified 201 accounts.
Google has not 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 Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is conducting an investigation into Russian interference.
Facebook, Google and Twitter representatives are all set to appear before the Senate committee investigating Russian meddling on November 1.