Polarization and Pokemon Go? by Naba Khan @ Boston University
In the months since November 2016, countless news sources have reported Russian interference in the American election. The stories behind this manipulation vary. One Russian group pretended to be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and even Pokemon Go.
They called themselves “Don’t Shoot Us,” and aimed to motivate activists to protest. In addition to posting and circulating videos of police brutality, and attempting to organize protests, the group planned a contest on Pokemon Go. Users were challenged to name Pokemon characters after victims of Police Brutality and to train them in locations police brutality incidents had taken place.
This perplexingly specific and narrowly targeted campaign was apparently intended to increase racial tension in the U.S. As Donie O’Sullivan notes, “One YouTube video or Twitter post could lead users down a rabbit hole of activist messaging and ultimately encourage them to take action.”
What purpose could this truly serve in terms of United States political interference? O’Sullivan reports that this was likely intended to galvanize activists and to make black activism appear to be a threat, but how might that weaken the United States? While its strategy may not have had a wide impact, the “Don’t Shoot Us” campaign provides a lens into the manipulation of American politics.
By egging on activists and attempting to paint them as a threat, the campaign tapped into Americans’ fear and contempt for all groups but their own. Kinder and Kam explain ethnocentrism, the tendency to sort humans into in an out groups – dividing those different from you from those similar. Naturally, we tend to group those we are different from in an “out” group – one we do not agree or empathize with.
This can be applied to politics using Lillian Mason’s analysis. Mason argues that polarization is far more than simply political. She defines partisanship as a social identity, something to which a person feels a psychological and social connection. A person feels as connected to his or her party as to any other social group or identity (clubs, communities, etc).
As a result, people see their party in a permanently positive light, engage actively in favor of their party, and react strongly to criticism from other groups. Thus, motivation in favor of a cause your group/party believes in can truly influence action, and increased aggression from a group that your group/party already finds intimidating can truly spike fear. The work of the “Don’t Shoot Us” campaign directly targeted the reactions of partisan citizens by tapping into their own groups’ causes or their groups’ pre-existing threats, aiming to both use and strengthen America’s already prevalent polarization.
This movement intended to manipulate groups who already saw themselves as opponents into being increasingly divided. This divide is already massive – in fact, according to the Pew Research Center and NPR, “America is more divided than ever before.” With another government shutdown on the horizon and angrier Twitter battles every day, this divide does not appear to be healing any time soon. This view of other groups as opposition directly impacts this lack of progress, and stalls any ability for future compromise. Thomas Carsey and Jeffrey Layman explain that the majority of voters choose their issues based on their party. If the party shifts its stance, they note, its likely that their voters will soon follow. Politics is almost entirely personal. The bigger the group divides, the smaller the chance of progress.
By encouraging political activism for a heated issue on a new app, the “Don’t Shoot Us” campaign hoped to strengthen the us-and-them mentality already prominent in U.S. politics. While this may not have been the most effective way to do so, this Russian group was merely fueling already existing biases that halt progress in U.S. government. Polarization is at a high, with a wider current divide in presidential approval than in the past six decades. Maybe it should alarm us that this group’s strategy of interference consisted only of highlighting polarization, arguably the most defining and steadily rising quality of modern American politics.