Russians created an anti-Hillary Clinton video game called “Hilltendo” and tried to make it go viral in the weeks before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, CNN has determined through a review of internet records and computer code.
It’s one of the strangest ways yet discovered that Russians tried to influence the American election. But it’s indicative of just how creative Russian internet trolls were willing to be.
On the surface, it looks like a silly, Flash-based game of the sort that populated the internet for years. Yet Hilltendo appears to be more sophisticated than that. In fact, it may indicate an intent to zero in on the people who played the game, track their behavior on social media, and hit them later with micro-targeted advertisements, according to several website programmers and cybersecurity experts who viewed the code at CNN’s request.
The evidence is embedded in the website’s code, internet records, the methodical campaign to make Hilltendo gain popularity online, and a Russian software developer’s ties to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency.
Jonathon Morgan, whose company New Knowledge tracks the spread of misinformation online, said the game is an example of how sophisticated and expansive Russian propaganda is and why it’s difficult for any one social media platform to solve the problem.
The game consisted of three levels, starting with this one: “Help Hillary delete as many classified emails as possible before she is caught.” Players controlled a Hillary Clinton character who sits on a missile and eliminates emails, all while avoiding FBI agents.
The next level asked: “How much money can Hillary get from the Arab states?” At the top of the screen, nations’ flags drop money. At the bottom, the Clinton character holds a basket to collect the cash as it falls.
The final level challenged users to “Help Hillary throw the Constitution as far as possible,” and it included caricatures of then-President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
The game’s website had Facebook and Google tracking software embedded on it. This software would have made it possible for the game’s creators to identify people who played the game and later target them with advertising elsewhere on the Web, including on Facebook, potentially to direct them to disinformation campaigns.
Hilltendo would have been a relatively simple game to build, said Brian Moore, a New York-based developer who built the viral anti-Republican video game “GOP Arcade.”
“You could get this out in as quickly as 12 hours. It’s a very simple game. They could have found a template to build the game on. The animations are pretty stock. It’s not anything too insane,” he told CNN. “The art is the hardest part. It’s pretty polished.”
How CNN made the Russian connection
Hilltendo.com, like any website, is kept online by a computer network with an Internet Protocol address. Many websites can be randomly grouped together on the same IP address — 17 different websites that have nothing to do with anti-American Russian activity once had the IP address eventually used by Hilltendo.
But records examined by cybersecurity expert Paul Vixie and CNN appear to show that, beginning in May 2016, the hosting company dedicated this IP address to a single client. From that point on, the only new websites assigned to that address were Hilltendo.com, PlayWithHillary.com, and BlackFist.pro. BlackFist.pro has previously been shown to have been run by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked corporation indicted by U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller last month.