with Tonya Riley

With Tonya Riley

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Social media sites are once again at the center of a debate over online speech after Twitter applied its new “manipulated media” label for the first time yesterday to a deceptively edited video of former vice president Joe Biden. 

White House social media director Dan Scavino posted the video, and it was later retweeted by President Trump. Scavino also shared the same video on Facebook. This morning, the company labeled it to reflect that independent fact-checkers found the altered video contained “partly false information," and Facebook is “reducing its distribution,” according to company spokeswoman Brittany Uter.

Here's an image of Scavino's labeled tweet, provided by Twitter:

The video was the first test of a new policy that Twitter adopted on March 5 to label tweets that contain manipulated or synthetic media, ranging from edited videos to more sophisticated examples known as “deepfakes” that can fabricate events that never happened.

In this case, the altered video of Biden — who has surged to the front of the Democratic race to oust Trump in November — is based on a speech he gave in Kansas City, Mo., on Saturday. It was then shared on Twitter by Scavino, only edited to make it appear as if Biden inadvertently endorsed Trump for reelection.

The version of the video shared by Scavino showed Biden stumbling on a line during a speech, then saying, “Excuse me. We can only reelect Donald Trump.”

But the edited video deleted the second part of the former vice president’s sentence. The whole thing said: “Excuse me. We can only reelect Donald Trump if in fact we get engaged in this circular firing squad here. It’s gotta be a positive campaign.”

The video is the latest flare-up in a long-running debate about how much responsibility social networks have to fact-check posts on their services especially those shared by political figures –  as the 2020 election heats up. Democrats are urging the companies to be more aggressive in limiting falsehoods shared by the president and his allies, while conservatives warn the companies against limiting free speech. 

The clipped Biden video raised questions online about the companies' divergent policies for policing edited videos, as well as the speed by which the companies enforce them. 

Twitter applied the label to Scavino’s tweet about 5 p.m. on Sunday, about 18 hours after Scavino first shared the video. The tweet had at least 5 million views and more than 21,000 retweets as of Sunday evening. Twitter's label linked to a “Moment” aggregating tweets from verified accounts that fact-checked the video.   

Facebook applied the fact-checking label early this morning. It credited partner Lead Stories with debunking the claim. The post as of this morning had more than 1 million views and had been shared more than 24,000 times. 

“Fact-checkers rated this video as partly false, so we are reducing its distribution and showing warning labels with more context for people who see it, try to share it, or already have,” Uter said in a statement. "As we announced last year, the same applies if a politician shares the video, if it was otherwise fact-checked when shared by others on Facebook." 

Critics raised concerns that both companies were too slow to respond, considering the millions of views the posts racked up before they were flagged. Facebook only applied the label after Biden's campaign circulated a statement last night blasting the social network for its handling of false content. 

“Facebook's malefesance when it comes to trafficking in blatantly false information is a national crisis in this respect,” Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz said. “It is also an unconscionable act of putting profit above not just our country, but every country. Facebook won't say it, but it is apparent to all who have examined their conduct and policies: they care first and foremost about money and, to that end, are willing to serve as one of the world's most effective mediums for the spread of vile lies.” 

Meanwhile, Republicans argued that Twitter had overstepped in flagging the tweet. Scavino said the video was “not manipulated” in a tweet this morning:

He also said he agreed with a tweet warning the company's move set a “dangerous precedent”: 

Brendan Carr, a Republican Federal Communications Commissioner, warned that the company's move could silence political speech in a Tweet:

Twitter’s rollout of the new label was also not without technical glitches. The label was not showing up when people searched for Scavino’s tweet, though Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said it was appearing in individuals’ timelines. She added the company is working on a fix.

Some experts praised Twitter for implementing the new label, including former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos. He also offered suggestions for the company: 

But others noted that the label, which was in a small font and in light blue, was difficult to see. Some also suggested Twitter should have removed the offending post from its service entirely:

The labels are one way social media companies are trying to crack down on false and misleading information in 2020, following a 2016 election in which they were blamed for allowing incorrect information to widely circulate on their platforms, influencing the election and providing Russian trolls and bots with entry into the American political system.

They've especially been under pressure to address the spread of edited videos after a crudely edited video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went viral on the services last year. Lawmakers and tech experts are also concerned that advances in video editing, such as deepfakes, could be a powerful force to spread disinformation in 2020. 

But the companies have different policies that are not always consistent. Facebook, too, has a policy for manipulated video, and says it will remove deepfake videos that meet certain criteria. It also has partnerships with third-party fact-checkers, and applies labels to videos those organizations determine are false.

Twitter’s new policy prohibits sharing synthetic or manipulated media that could cause harm. But like in this instance, the company may apply labels to tweets to help people understand their authenticity or to provide additional context.

It’s rare for Twitter to take action against tweets shared by Trump, even though there have previously been complaints that the president’s tweets violate the company’s policy. Twitter has previously taken action against the president’s tweets for copyright violations.


BITS: Uber and Lyft are taking the rare step of offering compensation to drivers who are quarantined because of the coronavirus. The companies unveiled the new policies over the weekend after lawmakers and activists criticized them for not doing enough to support contractors who do not have benefits that employees enjoy such as paid sick leave or health insurance through the company. 

Uber will compensate sick or quarantined drivers up to 14 days, though it's unclear how much. Lyft also announced it would provide funds to drivers diagnosed with “diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency.” 

Uber and Lyft’s announcements follow a letter sent by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Friday asking gig companies to ease the financial burdens on workers during the coronavirus outbreak, the Los Angeles Times's Johana Bhuiyan reported

But Gig Workers Rising, an activist collective representing drivers, say the new policy doesn't go far enough. The collective tweeted that the ride-hailing giants are doing the “bare minimum.” The group launched a petition on Friday pushing Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and other gig worker companies to give all workers paid sick time off during the crisis:

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted his support of the gig workers' demands:

Postmates, Instacart and AmazonFlex have instructed workers to stay home if they're sick, but have not offered any sort of paid time off or compensation. DoorDash and Instacart are exploring options, the firms told Reuters on Sunday. Postmates and Instacart, meanwhile, announced new “no-contact” delivery options to reduce risk of exposure to the disease. 

Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter have pledged to pay hourly contractors who cannot perform their roles at home. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

NIBBLES: Facebook and Instagram banned all ads and listings selling medical face masks in light of concerns that sellers are exploiting coronavirus fears, the company announced on Friday. The ban follows reports that sellers were jacking up prices for medical products on Facebook's Marketplace as well as deceptively advertising face masks and other prevention-related products.

Director of product management Rob Leathern said the changes would roll out in the next few days:

BYTES: Microsoft's decision to back facial recognition legislation in its home state of Washington is sparking criticism that the company is pushing for a watered-down bill to avoid some of the more aggressive proposals under consideration, Ryan Tracy at the Wall Street Journal reports. Tech companies including Amazon, Google and IBM have all recently signaled they're open to regulation of their products as long as it's on their terms. 

The company has thrown its support behind a pair of bills that would bar police from using facial recognition for broad surveillance and require companies to post notice when they use facial recognition in public. The technology could still be used for purposes such as investigating a crime or granting someone access to a building.

“If we don’t move past the polarizing debates that have blocked progress, people will continue to be left without any protection under the law,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a statement.

But privacy advocates say the legislation, led by Microsoft employee and Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, lacks any real teeth. 

“They are effectively geared to allow these companies to continue selling and profiting from these technologies, more or less unhindered,” Meredith Whittaker of New York University’s AI Now Institute told Ryan.

Amazon, which is also based in Washington, declined to comment on the bills. But it and IBM and Google have also called for federal guidance on facial recognition principles.


— News from the private sector:


— News from the public sector:



—Coming up:

  • The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust will host a hearing on "Competition in Digital Technology Markets: Examining Self-Preferencing by Digital Platforms" on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • Nava Public Benefit Corporation will host a conversation moderated by the Technology 202's Cat Zakrzewski on “Impact at Scale: From Big Tech to Civic Tech” on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
  • The Senate Committee Judiciary will hold a hearing Wednesday on “The EARN IT Act: Holding the Tech Industry Accountable in the Fight Against Online Child Sexual Exploitation” on Wednesday at 10:00 a.m.
  • FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks and FTC Co missioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter will jointly host a field hearing in Detroit, Michigan on 5G technology and big data on March 16 at 1 p.m.
  • The Game Developers Conference will take place in San Francisco March 16-20.