“Hilltendo” was a flash-based platformer game aimed at smearing Hillary Clinton days before the 2016 election, according to a new CNN report. While it’s hard to gauge how effective it was, it certainly speaks volumes about the bizarre lengths Russian agents may have gone to in trying to influence American politics.
As if developed with your retired uncle in mind, Hilltendo had you take control of Clinton and help her do bad things by moving left to right and dodging hazards like the FBI. It consisted of three different levels with self-explanatory titles like “Help Hillary delete as many classified emails as possible before she is caught” and “Help Hillary throw the Constitution as far as possible.” In the third players move Clinton back and forth to collect bags of money dropping from “Arab states” while wearing a burqa. That’s about it.
The game makes more sense though when considered in the context of a larger campaign of Russian meddling in the 2016 election that included posing as Black Lives Matter activists on Tumblr and trying to galvanize pro-Trump voters with fake rallies organized on Facebook. If Russian agents charged with disrupting American politics were willing to make legions of fake Twitter accounts, why not archaic flash games as well?
CNN reports the game was also possibly a tool for tracking people’s behavior on social media masquerading as a browser game. The website looked designed to use the information it collected from players to later send small, targeted ads at them long after they’d left, at least based on the assessments of website programmers and cybersecurity experts the news outlet contacted for the story.
Despite the slick presentation, it’s unclear how many people saw the game, let alone played it. The only place it appeared to really blow up was was on Imgur where a post about it was viewed 700,000 times, made it onto the front page, and was eventually highlighted in September 2016 in the site’s weekly blog post. A counter on the game’s webpage apparently reported it being played 19,000 times at one point prior to when the entire thing was removed.
The propaganda’s connection to Russia is based on CNN’s investigation of the Hilltendo.com ISP address which it says was, starting in May 2016, used exclusively for Hilltendo and sites called PlayWithHillary.com and BlackFist.pro. These other sites were at one time or another run by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-connected “troll farm” believed to be at the heart of Russian disinformation attempts during the 2016 election. Members of the St. Petersburg organization were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last month for allegedly violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with the country’s elections. CNN also reports that both PlayWithHillary.com and Hilltendo.com were registered and went online just hours apart. While it’s possible this was all simply a coincidence, cybersecurity expert Paul Vixie told the outlet he didn’t think that was the case.
CNN also looked into who shared links to the game on Twitter (something which occurred less than a few dozen times) and saw many of the accounts were Russian, and either have now been banned from the platform or are suspected of being connected to the Internet Research Agency. To get an idea of just how convoluted the trail of crumbs being followed is, one of the accounts tweeting about the game was @MetalRex101, listed as belonging to Ilya Ibragimov, who, under a similar alias on the Russian social media platform VKontake, listed Glavest as a previous employer, a company which was based out of the same building as the Internet Research Agency.
CNN reported other Russian connections that are both persuasive but inconclusive, like instances of links to the game being posted on on Voat by a spam account which was simultaneously posting Internet Research Agency content on Reddit. However, even if these connections are true, it doesn’t necessarily prove that Hilltendo was part of a well orchestrated campaign by a foreign power to sow dissent within the American electorate. If anything, it seems to indicate just how desperate Russian agents were to be seen doing something, anything, that looked like it might be disrupting the 2016 election.