With Biden and Sanders Feud, Specter of Doctored Videos Looms Large

Over the past few weeks, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has launched an extensive attack on Joe Biden’s record on Social Security during his decade-long tenure in the Senate. But with the inclusion of one misleading video, the Sanders campaign found itself on the receiving end as Biden retaliated and accused the campaign of circulating a “doctored tape.”

The controversy began when David Sirota, a speechwriter for Sanders, made a false claim in a January 7 campaign newsletter, asserting that Biden had “lauded” former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare during a 2018 speech at the Brookings Institution. Sirota also promoted a since-deleted clip of the speech on Twitter, which had been selectively edited by another user to make it seem like Biden was agreeing with Ryan. 

The post and clip were part of a Sanders offensive centered on Biden’s Social Security record but had been taken out of context.

The full quote from Biden’s speech was: “Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code. What’s the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare. That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it. Now I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of one percent who are relying on Social Security. Maybe you guys do.”

The last two sentences, which showed that Biden did not “laud” Ryan’s plan, were omitted by Sirota. While Ryan had long pushed for privatizing Social Security, Biden in the clip was advocating for wealthy individuals to pay a higher rate on their Social Security taxes to help keep the program solvent.

Biden went on to say: “So we need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, as well, not just investors; that gets rid of unprotective loopholes like stepped-up basis; and it raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay; and pay for the things we all acknowledge will grow the country.”

The news media quickly picked up on the false claim, and the fact-checking website Politifact published a lengthy explanation of the controversy, arguing in the end that “the Sanders campaign plucked out part of what Biden said but omitted the full context of his comments.”

When Biden addressed the issue during a campaign stop in Iowa, however, he further inflamed tensions by alleging that the video Sirota had shared had been “doctored.” 

“Let’s get the record straight. There’s a little, doctored video going around…saying I agreed with Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate, about wanting to privatize Social Security.” Biden said. “They doctored the photo. They doctored the piece.” 

Then the Sanders campaign fired back, saying that Biden “should be honest with voters and stop trying to doctor his own public record of consistently and repeatedly trying to cut Social Security.”

And in its coverage of Biden’s response, The New York Times noted that the former vice president had claimed the video had been doctored“a loaded word in an era of disinformation”without any evidence. Meanwhile, Politico’s Marc Caputo simply described the claim as “false.”

“[And] there is no evidence that the campaign altered any video,” Caputo added.

The Biden campaign seems to have acknowledged this. In a recent fundraising email, with the subject line, “I’m disappointed,” Biden used the phrase “deceptively edited” to describe the video, instead of “doctored.” That same revised language was also used by a campaign official in a statement to NBC News.

The controversy around “doctored” videos is not new. Just a few weeks ago, Biden was again the target of another selectively edited video that made it seem like he was embracing white nationalist sentiments. Other attempts to smear political figures have gone after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

And in the spring of 2019, a distorted video of Nancy Pelosi during a speaking engagement that had been slowed down and altered to make the House Speaker appear intoxicated was shared all across social media and promoted by President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney.

[Proliferation of Doctored Pelosi Videos Illustrates Media’s Incapacity to Combat Misinformation]

“We’re not in a new age where video and audio can be doctored. That has happened. What’s new now is that the Internet, as we now know, is the No. 1 way that people get information. And the problem is that the Internet doesn’t have an editor,” said former Senate Republican staffer Amanda Carpenter at the time.

“The Internet doesn’t care about whether something is credible or not. The people who are in charge of powerful networks – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – only care about engagement – click, click, click, click. And so there’s no incentive to take it down because no one is held responsible for content that is false.”

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