A number of videos of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that were distorted to make her appear drunk and incomprehensible were widely propagated by conservative pages and accounts across social media last Friday.
The videos of Pelosi’s speech at an event at the left-leaning Center for American Progress on Wednesday had been edited to slur her voice and make it sound garbled. Though the origin of the doctored videos remains unclear, their timing suggests that supporters of President Trump intended to shift media attention away from his tumultuous meeting with Pelosi on Wednesday over funding for infrastructure investment.
During the same speech, which was made just hours after Trump abruptly ended the tense meeting at the White House, Pelosi made news when she commented on her party’s increasingly serious consideration of impeachment.
“In plain sight, this president is obstructing justice and is engaged in a cover-up,” she said. “And that could be an impeachable offense.”
Analysts from The Washington Post and elsewhere deduced the videos had been slowed down and were modified to change the pitch of Pelosi’s voice — edits that do not require sophisticated technology and can be achieved by basic video editing software. As The Post highlighted in its coverage, the distorted video illustrated the “subtle way that viral misinformation could shape public perceptions in the run-up to the 2020 election.”
In an interview with The Post, Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said it was “striking” that subtly manipulated videos could be “so effective and believable to some.”
“While I think that deepfake technology poses a real threat, this type of low-tech fake shows that there is a larger threat of misinformation campaigns — too many of us are willing to believe the worst in people that we disagree with,” Farid added.
The damage of the misinformation has already been done, however. As of Monday, one version of the video uploaded by conservative Facebook page Politics WatchDog had been shared 48,000 times and viewed 2.8 million times. A separate video shared on Twitter by Trump himself, which had condensed a 20-minute press conference to highlight Pelosi’s pauses and verbal stumbles, had been viewed more than 6.18 million times.
This is not the first time Trump has used his bully pulpit to disseminate doctored videos. In November of last year, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders shared an edited video of CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta asking a question which made it appear as if Acosta had “[placed] his hands” on an intern.
The video, which was immediately debunked as being fake, had been used as justification for the White House’s unprovoked confiscation of Acosta’s press credentials — an unlawful abridgment of his First Amendment rights that was later reversed by a District Court judge.
The rapid proliferation of the misinformation about Pelosi last week prompted many calls for platforms to delete the videos. Youtube responded on Thursday by removing all versions of the video because they violated “clear policies that outline what content is not acceptable to post.”
On the other hand, Facebook refused to delete the videos, saying that inaccurate information was not a violation of its terms of service, and that reducing the distribution of and not outright removing “inauthentic content” struck the right balance between “encouraging free expression” and “promoting a safe and authentic community.”
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Monika Bickert, a senior Facebook executive, said the platform would instead “heavily reduce” the frequency of the video’s appearance in users’ news feeds, include links to Facebook’s partner fact-checkers Lead Stories and PolitiFact and notify all users who had seen or shared the video that it was fake.
“We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice about what to believe,” said Bickert. “Our job is to make sure we are getting them accurate information.”
New York Times contributing opinion writer Kara Swisher called Bickert’s justification “ridiculous” and said Facebook’s lackluster response showed how “expert” it had become in “blurring the lines between simple mistakes and deliberate deception,” and in the process, “abrogating its responsibility” as a significant distributor of news.
Swisher added that unlike other media, such as broadcast networks or newspapers, Facebook was immune from repercussions under a communications statute called the Communications Decency Act. Swisher wrote that the legislation, which was intended to spur innovation and encourage technological startups, has now become “a shield to protect behemoths from any sensible rules.”
“By conflating censorship with the responsible maintenance of its platforms, and by providing “rules” that are really just capricious decisions by a small coterie of the rich and powerful, Facebook and others have created a free-for-all with no consistent philosophy,” she said.
The “swift spread of agitation propaganda and the creep of hyper partisanship across social media isn’t a bug, it is a feature,” wrote Charlie Warzel, another opinion writer for The Times who was previously a technology writer at BuzzFeed News.
In spite of the news media’s increased awareness of its role in informing the public, Warzel said the traditional functions of platforms like Facebook were inadequate to combat the pervasiveness of misinformation. Though journalists covered this story with the “best of intentions,” the reporting process was inherently unable to avoid aiding the perpetrators, whose “only goal [was] to hijack attention.”
“The distribution mechanics, rules and terms of service of Facebook’s platform — and the rest of social media — are no match for professional propagandists, trolls, charlatans, political operatives and hostile foreign actors looking to sow division and blur the lines of reality,” Warzel said.