A bizarre story involving the Lib Dems and a 30-man Pokémon GO brawl turned out to be fake news

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A scene from an in-game battle in Pokémon GO.
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The Pokemon Company

British media outlets were buzzing on Monday morning with news that the Pokémon GO smartphone game had apparently sparked a 30-man brawl in the home counties of England.

Publications claimed to have evidence of a “mass brawl of 30 people who were playing the augmented reality game” in an unspecified part of Surrey, a stereotypically affluent county south of London.

The “punch-up” was allegedly revealed in police reports obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – but in fact, the story was fake.

The brawl was mentioned on Monday morning by The Sun newspaper as part of a wider report on Pokémon GO-related violence.

The anecdote was then published as an independent story in outlets like the Evening Standard (cached), Daily Express, the Metro, Yahoo! News, as well as the website of the local Surrey Advertiser newspaper, all of which maintained that the fight was between 30 people who were arguing over something in the game.

As of 3 p.m. Monday, several of the stories had been taken down or substantially edited to remove claims that there had been a brawl.

After reports began to proliferate, Surrey Police issued a rebuttal in which they said that there had been a fight, but that it actually had nothing to do with the game. It said:

“There are a number of media reports today of an incident of disorder in Surrey involving 30 people connected to the game Pokémon GO.

“These reports stem from a freedom of information request for crime reports that included the word “Pokemon.” The incident on July 24, 2016, that is being reported as a [brawl] “involving 30 people” was called in to us by someone who happened to be out Pokemon hunting when they saw an unrelated altercation.

“The incident did not involve people hunting Pikachu, Charizard, Squirtle, or any other fictional collectable pocket monster.”

So where did the story come from?

The original story was briefed to The Sun by the Liberal Democrats. The party secured the FOI data and sent it to the newspaper with a quote from former leader Tim Farron. It denies being the source of the Surrey brawl claim.

tim farron

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Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron speaks during their General Election campaign launch in Manchester, Britain April 21, 2017.
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REUTERS/Darren Staples

The Lib Dems sent the FOI documents to Business Insider. They detail a few violent incidents involving Pokémon (both the card game and Pokémon GO) in West Yorkshire and the West Midlands.

An apparent report on the Surrey fight appears in a BBC News story published almost a year ago.

The story said Surrey Police “attended reports of 30 people fighting after a Pokemon [sic] hunt turned into a brawl,” but did not provoke wider commentary at the time.

Is a mass brawl over Pokémon GO at all plausible?

n short, no. The implication that gamers might fight over resources inside the game is likely based on a misunderstanding of how it works.

Players catch Pokémon and find items independently of one another: The fact that you find a Bulbasaur doesn’t make it any less likely that I will, and I can’t catch “your” Pokémon.

However, players are encouraged to huddle together to benefit from items that can help (but not hinder) the efforts of nearby players.

Pokémon GO has been associated with real-world violence before, but in the form of stampedes rather than fights. Two well-documented crushes took place in New York’s Central Park and in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

However, although both of those incidents look dangerous, there were no reports of actual injuries.