If you thought the 2016 election was awash in disinformation and lies, get ready: The 2020 election is going to make that affair look like a knitting session.

A video that was edited in a monumentally dishonest fashion to make Joe Biden sound racist just circulated all over Twitter. Distressingly, some reporters and people with large Twitter followings tweeted out the video, before others drew their attention to the full context, causing them to backtrack.

It is simply incredible that anyone in the business of informing people would circulate a video like this before verifying the full context. Have we really learned nothing in the past few years? One hopes this episode will be taken as a cautionary tale of what’s coming.

The video in question, which your humble blogger will not link to, shows only 19 seconds of a 13-minute monologue that Biden delivered in New Hampshire. Biden had been asked by an audience member to speak about his work and his agenda on sexual assault and domestic violence.

Biden opened by talking about how English common law in the 1300s allowed for husbands to beat their wives, and then said that we had inherited this “cultural problem.” Biden then talked at great length about his father’s teachings to him, his work in the Senate on domestic violence, and other related matters.

Toward the end, Biden circled back to English common law, and said this:

Folks, this is about changing the culture, our culture, our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture, that says it’s all right.

The edited video removes that first sentence and the very last clause, so all you hear is this:

Our culture, our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture.

As Daniel Dale pointed out, this is doubly dishonest: It removes both the larger and the immediate context.

It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to check Biden’s depiction of English common law in the Middle Ages. But what’s clear beyond any doubt from the full remarks is that in this particular reference to English or European culture, Biden — whether right or wrong — was talking primarily about our legal inheritance from English common law and its lingering impact on efforts to legally combat violence against women.

The broader references to culture more generally throughout are murky and a bit odd. But the overwhelming point he was making is that our legal inheritance and ingrained cultural habits are a big part of the problem.

One of the original purveyors of this disinformation (again, we won’t link) is still pretending this was an honest depiction, and is accusing those who supplied the corrective context of being the “real” purveyors of disinformation. Take this as a glimpse of what’s coming.

"Deepfakes" have changed the idea that seeing is believing - and could have a huge impact on how future political campaigns unfold. (The Washington Post)

The coming disinformation tsunami

There is simply no longer any excuse to ignore the ample warnings we’ve now seen.

Let’s review. Since 2016, the special counsel’s investigation and two Senate Intelligence Committee reports have spelled out in great detail that Russian disinformation warfare against the 2016 election was extraordinarily concerted, insidious, broad in scope and deliberately crafted to divide the country along racial and social lines. Numerous top intelligence officials have warned that Russia and other outside actors will strike again.

The entire Ukraine scandal, for which Trump has been impeached, is largely about disinformation. Trump extorted Ukraine to get it to announce public statements that would smear Biden with disinformation and help validate conspiracy theories that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in 2016.

In effect, Trump was trying to pressure a foreign power to help manufacture more disinformation to help mislead U.S. voters about a domestic political opponent and absolve Russia of its original disinformation warfare campaign against this country.

Trump has retweeted accounts from the far-right conspiracy theorist QAnon. What’s more, Trump and his prominent supporters have played an active role in spreading disinformation against Democrats. After a conspiracy theory falsely connected former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke to the recent Texas mass murderer, shadowy but prominent Trump allies amplified the claim.

Trump himself recently retweeted a tweet from one of his favorite conspiracy theorists — whose work he has promoted in the past — that falsely created the impression that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) partied on the anniversary of 9/11. And remember that distorted video of Nancy Pelosi slowed down to make her look drunk?

All this is a sign of what the Democratic nominee could face. It’s no wonder that some Democrats are worried we might even see “deepfake” media manipulations. Imagine such ultra-sophisticated video distortions of Biden’s rambles, retweeted by Trump, and perhaps even by reporters.

Trump views disinformation not as a scourge to be combated in the name of protecting our democracy, but as an ally. In this particular case, Trump has not retweeted the video of Biden — yet. But let’s try to learn from this.

At this point, no good-faith actors can pretend there is any excuse for playing any role, even an unwitting one, in making this problem worse.

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