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Pro-Israel graphic ads are making their way into children’s video games

Oct 30 (Reuters) – Maria Julia Assis was sitting down to a meal in her terraced house in north London when her 6-year-old son ran into the dining room, his face pale.

The puzzle game on his Android phone was interrupted by a video showing Hamas fighters, terrified Israeli families, and grainy graphic footage. On a black screen, a message from the Israeli Foreign Ministry appeared to the first-grader: “We will make sure those who hurt us pay a heavy price.”

Assis, a 28-year-old barista from Brazil, said the ad left her son shaken and she quickly deleted the game.

“He was shocked,” she said in a phone interview last week. “He literally said, ‘What is this bloody ad doing to my game?’

Reuters was unable to determine how the ad reached her son’s video game, but her family is not alone. The news agency documented at least five other cases across Europe where the same pro-Israel video, which carried footage of rocket attacks, a fiery explosion, and masked gunmen, was shown to players, including several children.

In at least one case, ads ran within the popular “Angry Birds” game created by SEGA-owned Rovio (ROVIO.HE).

Rovio confirmed that “these ads with annoying content have accidentally arrived in our game” and are now being blocked manually. Spokeswoman Lotta Backlund did not provide details about which of the “dozen or so advertising partners” had provided her with the ad.

The head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s digital department, David Saranga, confirmed that the video was a government-promoted ad, but said he had “no idea” how it ended up inside different games.

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He said the footage was part of a larger campaign by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which has spent $1.5 million on online ads since an October 7 Hamas attack on civilians in southern Israel ignited the war in Gaza. He said officials had specifically instructed advertisers to “block it to people under the age of 18.”

Saranga defended the graphic nature of the advertising campaign.

“We want the world to understand what happened here in Israel,” he said. “It’s a massacre.”

Reuters contacted 43 advertising companies that Rovio lists on its website as “external data partners” to try to confirm who placed the ad in the games.

Of those partners, 12, including Amazon (AMZN.O), Index Exchange, and Pinterest (PINS.N), responded and said they were not responsible for the ad appearing on Angry Birds.

Saranga said the department spent money with advertising companies including Taboola (TBLA.O), Outbrain (OB.O), Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O), Google and X, formerly known as Twitter. Taboola and Outbrain said they had nothing to do with game ads.

Google displayed more than 90 ads for the State Department, but declined to comment on where those ads were displayed. X, formerly known as Twitter, did not respond to requests for comment.

Reuters found no evidence of a similar Palestinian digital advertising effort, except for a few Arabic-language videos promoted by West Bank-based Palestine TV, a news agency affiliated with the Palestinian Authority.

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A representative of the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry published a statement saying the ministry was working to influence public opinion by sharing evidence of suffering in Gaza under the Israeli bombing that followed the October 7 attack, but did not say whether it was using ads as a means of propaganda. a tool.

Representatives of the Hamas movement that rules Gaza did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on its media campaigns.

Reuters documented six cases – in Britain, France, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands – where people saw the same or similar ads as Ibn Assis or said their children had seen them. In the case of the Asis family, the ads appeared in a game called “Alice’s Mergeland” produced by a developer called LazyDog Game. Other ads appeared for family-friendly digital entertainment, such as the cube-building game “Stack,” the puzzle game “Balls’n Ropes,” “Solitaire: Card Game 2023,” and the running and jumping adventure “Subway Surfers.”

Alexandra Marginyan, a 24-year-old intern who lives in Munich, said she was surprised to see the pro-Israel video appear in the middle of her game of solitaire.

“I had a very aggressive reaction to it,” Marginian said.

LazyDog did not respond to requests for comment. Ubisoft (UBIP.PA)-owned Stack developer Ketchapp, Austrian Solitaire developer nerByte, Turkish Balls’n Ropes developer Rollic, and Danish Subway Surfers developer SYBO Games also did not return messages seeking comment on the ads.

Apple and Alphabet’s Google, which monitor apps on their internal software platforms for iPhone and Android, respectively, referred questions to game developers.

Advertising rules vary from country to country, but in Britain – where Assis and her son live – the Advertising Standards Authority is the one that monitors advertising campaigns. The authority said that although it is not currently investigating any advertising from the Israeli government, any advertising containing graphic images should be “carefully targeted away from people under the age of 18.”

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(This story has been corrected to change the last name to Assis, not Cassis, throughout the transcript)

(Reporting by Raphael Sater in Washington and Sheila Dang and Katie Paul in New York; Preparing by Muhammad for the Arabic Bulletin; Preparing by Muhammad al-Yamani for the Arabic Bulletin) Editing by Ken Lee and Lisa Shoemaker

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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A reporter covering cybersecurity, surveillance and disinformation for Reuters. The work included investigations into state-sponsored espionage, deepfake propaganda, and mercenary hacking.